footloose and fancy free in oz

A bloke, his better half, and a 4WD truck, in the wild blue yonder of the red continent


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A stowaway and a National Park

6 Mar – 14 Mar

Our next destination along the way was Yuraygir National Park which covers nearly 40,000 hectares across a 65km coastal stretch north of Coffs Harbour.  In fact, it’s the largest swathe of undeveloped coastal land that remains in NSW. It had come highly recommended and we were really looking forward to it.

However, as we learned that access to the northern part was closed due to roadworks/repairs, we headed for Coffs with the intention to explore Yuraygir from the bottom up.

Our first stop was Red Rock, a little holiday community at the southern end of Yuraygir where a part of the stunning river system winds its way towards the ocean in an attractive tidal estuary. It also features, as the name so coyly suggests, abundant rock of an intense ochre colour that marks just like chalk, but in red obviously.  It’s found in copious quantities around the headland where a beautiful walk offers amazing views up and down the coastline and onto the rugged cliffs.

Anyway, it was time for lunch so we found ourselves a nice waterfront position and the bloke rolls out the awning for some shade (I know it’s ironic  … we finally have sun and the first thing we do is roll out the awning!) when he tells me to “look at that”. Well, “that” turned out to be a bloody whopper of a spider that had taken shelter from the pissing rain under our awning. However, the spider was a) way too big for the bloke to resort to conventional measures (i.e. tip a receptacle over it and slide a sheet of paper underneath, that type of trick) and b) it was too bloody high up to reach it with anything other than our broom. Yes, we travel with a broom!  (Handy for exterior truck cleanliness … and if transport options are severely limited)

My instructions were clear, “do what it takes”. The bloke however was at pains not to hurt the leggy creature and clearly didn’t follow instructions. As a result, the frigging spider disappeared into our air conditioning unit much to my horror and disgust. And no, I wasn’t allowed to use quantities of insect spray as it might damage something or other inside the air-con.

Now I’m no particular friend of creepy crawlies inside my personal space, especially if they’re unknown to me, and are the size of a compact car smart phone [excuse the earlier slight exaggeration]. Suffice to say that the bloke and I didn’t exchange many pleasantries that day. He assured me – more or less credibly – that the spider wouldn’t be able to enter the inside of the cabin via the air conditioning and will exit the vehicle in an orderly fashion very soon, if not sooner. I struggled to muster any faith in his assertion (how can anybody know what a bloody spider will or won’t do?!) and had a less than pleasant night which was made even more hair-raising on account of our woollen blanket; see, it has a fairly long and loose fringe at the top and bottom end. No need to say that it sometimes inadvertently ends up in my face during the night. It’s normally not a problem but under the circumstances it became the reason for several near coronaries. Being not at all dramatic, I deemed that waking up alive had become a cause for celebration.

Curiously though, over the next few days there was no sign of the arachnoid monster and slowly I stopped inspecting the air-con unit for signs of hairy legs and soon even started leaving the ‘front door’ door open without concern. As for our uninvited guest (a Huntsman or something else – people seemed to be divided on the matter of identification), he has not been seen again to date. I pray that his absence will continue.

SpiderOur Stowaway

PARADISE FOUND

We had a couple of adventurous, if unsuccessful, attempts to reach Farm Cove or Station Camp from Red Rock, largely due to the fact that two maps we received from the visitor information in Coffs Harbour were inconsistent as far as forest roads were concerned. A local suggested that we might try a particular forest road that might still be passable, but cautioned that it includes a ford crossing which is normally quite deep. Given the floods it might be a bit dodgy he thought, and suggested that we might just use the main road.

Filled with unbridled enthusiasm for back-country roads, we managed to find ourselves heading towards aforementioned ford. We also discovered that it was very deep and murky and full of unpleasantly large rocks in rather undesirable places. After a number of barefoot crossings by the bloke and some investigation of the margins by myself (to avoid having to go into the deep end where all manner of creatures might lurk), we aborted the mission as we were alone, too far off the beaten track, without cellphone and internet coverage, not to mention hitherto uninitiated in the art of self-rescue in a 6-ton truck.

After a day at Station Camp where we selflessly fed the apparently starved local mosquito population, we moved onto Wooli.

Wooli Beach
Wooli Beach

Being far enough off the highway, at the end of a 35km country road, Wooli is rather a unique place – a small settlement wholly surrounded by National Park and the Pacific Ocean. It’s an immensely peaceful village, seemingly forgotten by time. Flanked by the crystal clear Wooli Wooli river estuary on one side and the booming surf of the Pacific on the other, Wooli lies largely on a long narrow sand spit that is an environmental marvel and pristine habitat for a great many rare and endangered species

Once again we were lucky enough to secure a front row position and camped right on the very long and beautiful surf beach where we got our fill of ionised air and marvelled at the stupendous view with the Solitary Islands in the distance. The beach was massive and practically devoid of people – apart from the odd fishermen.

Wollie Beach front row

And, since the weather was already markedly improved and reliably dry, our mountain bikes were used on a daily basis to have some fun on two wheels and to explore the wider area.

After a couple of days beach side, we thought we should move onto the river side of the spit to experience the estuarine salt marsh environment. It literally just meant moving to the other side of the road where, once again, we were supremely lucky to have a waterfront  place to camp. And what a great decision it was to get to know the Wooli Wooli River. It’s an amazingly pristine eco-system – supposedly the cleanest river in Australia, notwithstanding  a brownish colour on account of the tannin. However, the river water is clean enough that oysters grown upriver can be harvested to go straight onto the plate.

Wooli Wooli High Tide

One evening we enjoyed a glass of wine at the sandy banks of the river, watched over by a Brahmini Kite, a Sea Eagle, and various other birds who never introduced themselves to us. We saw the odd fish leap out of the water and just took in the glorious beauty of it all when, all of a sudden, we noticed some movement right in the shallows. I thought it might be some eels, so we moved over to where the action was in order to investigate what was going on.

Well, blow me down, it wasn’t an eel. “It’s a sting ray”, I shrieked. Then added with delight “no, it’s two … no, wait, three.” In the end we counted four stingrays right in front of our feet. As soon as I had laid eyes on them, they stopped playing and lined up in a neat row, one next to the other one – and looked at me, rather like school children might look at the teacher. It was comical and magnificent at the same time. But the stingrays didn’t move away, they just stayed pretty much where they were and slowly moved around me. On more than one occasion I thought I had to pinch myself; there I was, crouching in ankle deep water, surrounded by four stingrays, each of them within easy reach. Making eye contact with these gorgeous and alien looking creatures was something else altogether. It’s entirely possible that I may have been a tad overcome by the occasion and interaction which lasted around half an hour.

Friends and family who know (and mock) my long-held fear of ocean creatures, not to mention my reluctance of swimming in a body of water other than a swimming pool, will understand the magnitude of this experience. It’s what one might call a ‘game changer’.

Wolli Wolli at Dusk
Wooli Wooli River

Wooli really was magical for us, even beyond the nature department. The universe made sure that we’d run into a lovely couple on the beach one evening. We had a lengthy chat and then continued on our beach walk. The next day, one of them, Tanja, came to visit us at our camping spot. She is a tremendously talented artist, photographer, musician and composer and all-round wonderful and warm person.  Much to our delight, we discovered a great many shared interests, passions and ideas and took turns talking at warp speed. She was just convalescing from a very serious medical condition and was still pretty knocked around by the ordeal, but she was also amazingly vibrant, full of vision and purpose.

You know how it’s sometimes a great privilege when you cross paths with certain people; well, this was one of those instances.

Around Wooli there always seemed plenty to do. We did a great deal of walking, cycling, beach combing, bird watching and exploring. On one occasion we cycled to Digger’s Camp which felt like a fair hike on the way there, it also seemed rather more up-hill than anticipated, on top of which the last 8 kms or so was gravel road with less than pleasant corrugations and more potholes than you can shake a stick at. It all made me wish my mountain bike had ten times the suspension that it actually has. (I was glad I didn’t get back with saddle sores!)

The long cycle

Nevertheless, the natural beauty at the end of the road was well worth the ride. We found a stunning rugged headland with a secluded beach, a tiny little community of houses (all of which off-grid i.e. with their own power, sewerage and water systems) and a resident kangaroo population that remained unperturbed when we cycled past.

Diggers Headland

Diggers Headland, Yuraygir

It was a most beautiful, if slightly exhausting, ride in the heat. And, much to our surprise, the ride back was, mysteriously enough, once again largely up-hill … and with a solid head wind to boot. Luckily there was a cold beer waiting in the fridge. I can assure you, it didn’t even touch the sides as it went down!

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Rain, rain and – just for a change – more rain

25 Feb – 6 Mar

Looking at satellite pictures or listening to the weather forecast became an exercise in futility, self-flagellation, or perhaps just denial. Not wanting to belabour the point but, put bluntly, the weather was plain shite all over the place. Neither of us had ever experienced this much persistent and heavy precipitation; and sticking to our plan of “waiting it out” felt like an endurance exercise.

Kingscliff

We obviously made the most of any moments when the rain subsided, or those rare events when the sun made an appearance. The rest of the time was pretty much spent trying to avoid cabin fever, which involved a great deal of reading, something that we both enjoy. It also gave me time to try out some of my more involved cooking and baking recipes to see how much can be accomplished within the constraints of my new micro kitchen and without getting my knickers in a twist. I’m pleased to report that the likes of grissini, spicy cheese rolls, biscotti, bread and a great deal more came out beautifully and were produced without use of profanities.

On one occasion, we were parked for the day on the Kingscliff foreshore, just after I’d baked a batch of hazelnut biscotti the rains eased and allowed us to open the door. As soon I opened it, the most delightful little dog looked up at us wide-eyed and waggly tailed. He promptly hopped into our truck without hesitation, no invitation needed. He was being taken for his walk and we struck up a conversation with his owner, Joy, who told us that Mikey, the dog, had been looked after and fussed over by a couple who lived in a caravan, an experience which seemed to have instilled in him an attraction for caravans and motorhomes. The look on his face practically shouted “Finally! My next mobile kennel with personal assistants has arrived!”

Joy, as it turns out, was a most delightful lady, a New Zealander to boot and we hit it off immediately. She has an interesting life story and a wealth of anecdotes, some with fascinating historic interest such as the infamous Arthur Allan Thomas murder case (she went to school with the convicted murderer, knew the family and shared her insights).

When we asked her if she knew of a place nearby where free-camping would be ok, she promptly offered her property just up the road. Bowled over by her generosity (which she claimed was her way of repaying a similar gesture she received when touring Germany in a Kombi in the 70s) we gratefully accepted and later joined her for a glass of wine in her tasteful home which oozed with artefacts, many of which collected throughout a wildly adventurous life that had taken her all over the world to all manner of unusual places including Papua New Guinea in the 60s. In the corner of her room stood a floor-to-ceiling display cabinet filled to the brim with the most exotic collection of shells, most of which she had gathered herself on various diving excursions.  She truly was a joy to be with – quick witted, bright as a spark and with a permanent twinkle in her remarkably crystal blue eyes.

Before we left for the night, I asked to use the toilet, but returned soon thereafter with a somewhat pale complexion. When asked, I explained that a very large cockroach next to the toilet bowl had made me reconsider the urgency of the call of nature. Joy roared with laughter and said “Geez girl, you wouldn’t be much good in Papua New Guinea, would you?”

The next morning we said good bye to a dear new friend.

Murwillumbah
Murwillumbah in the pink

The next day we drove to Murwillimba with the intention to spend some time in the amazing virgin rainforests in and around Mt Warning.  We figured we might be able to enjoy it despite the rain which was still pissing down like there was no tomorrow. Who’d have thought that rainforests could be closed because of rain?!  Alas, all local national parks were closed due to widespread destruction and flooding. We were advised that the closest we might get to the rainforest would be to drive around the base of the mountains, through Uki and towards Nimbim, which is what we did. While we got an inkling of the scenic grandeur and the glorious vegetation that would ordinarily greet visitors on days with more advantageous visibility/weather, the narrow valleys and the hopelessly flooded rivers felt just too uncomfortable especially under the low-hanging cloud cover, so we couldn’t wait to make our way towards the coast and more open countryside.

Grease Nut Tree
The fruit of the Grease Nut Tree

En route we stopped over in Nimbim, the famous hippy hangout that came to life with the 70s alternative/protest movement. However, it very much seemed to trade on its colourful and liberal past and unfortunately, the vibe we picked up was less renegade and more anti-social. It would seem that life for many of the locals that we ran into revolves around consumption, cultivation or sale of various substances all which came across extremely hard-nosed and without any of the eco-consciousness we’d expected to encounter. All in all, it felt like a dark place which we were happy to leave behind.

With the rains still beating us into submission, we headed for Brunswick Heads hoping to lie low for a few days … “until these weather systems pass at last” or perhaps until we grew membranes between our toes and fingers. By now we could accurately predict the long-range forecast: it always seemed to be heavy rain with localised storms for 4 -5 days, then easing to showers, with  sunny periods on day 6 or 7. The only thing was that this seemed to be a rolling forecast of sorts, with a ‘meteorological carrot’ – the largely rain-free day – always remaining roughly a week ahead.

Thankfully for our sanity we had the odd dry spell for a walk on the beach (which was dreadfully damaged by the storms, like practically all other beaches up and down the coast), and we also managed to do a spot of laundry albeit the drying took a good two days under the awning and in the shower/bathroom.

To be honest, we were starting to crumble under what had all the hallmarks of ‘Chinese water torture’. The thought occurred to me that we maybe should have built an ark …

However, any self-pity quickly fell by the way side when I chatted with a German tourist who was here for a 6-week holiday and had arrived the day the rains started. With just over a week of holiday left, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that she’d get back with a tan. What a cruel climatic fate for one’s annual overseas holiday!

P1060763
Blue bird day!

After a stint in Byron Bay where we’d enjoyed a few long weekend stays in the past, we moved South. For some reason the township Byron had somewhat lost its appeal. Yes, it is still a vibrant destination with spectacular scenery, great beaches an interesting community and a predominantly alternative culture, but it’s also dreadfully overrun with tourists, particularly backpackers, many of whom seem to have a penchant for binge drinking and littering. After two years living a supremely urban life right in the vibrant centre of Brisbane, it seems that we’ve developed a definitive preference for quiet places with low impact tourism. So there.

Lorrie yellow explosion