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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Going troppo towards the top end

With our schedule firmly arranged around two festivals (Kuranda Roots and Bushweek), we had only four days to get ourselves from Townsville to Kuranda, in the Cairns region. While the route itself is a paltry 370ish km, there is lots to take in along the way. And as we had no intention of backtracking south of Cairns once we returned from the top end, this produced a trace of ‘touring stress’.  We made the most of our time, strictly according to the bloke’s motto “you can do anything you want … you just can’t do everything”.

Beaches, birds and snappy creatures

We essentially beach-hopped our way north (with the odd rainforest detour) and managed to find lovely beachside camping spots. On one occasion we stayed at an official freedom camping spot near Rollingstone Beach right next to a river mouth, which seemed super popular (it is listed in the Camps 7 book, after  all).

Rolleston Beach & River

Rolleston Beach & River

As we went on an evening stroll along the beach and river we were told to keep our eyes peeled for three locals we wouldn’t want to mess with. They often hang around the river we’re told; what’s more, they take no prisoners.

Upon learning that the ‘locals’ in question are of the crocodilian variety, it seemed a jolly good time to end the walk and return to our home base and prepare dinner before we became somebody else’s takeaway.

While we’re interested in wildlife encounters, we’ve long ago decided to restrict it to representatives of the animal kingdom that don’t wish to eat or poison us, or otherwise hasten our departure from this planet. Mind you, given the propensity of Australia’s wildlife to do just that, our enthusiasm in this regard is reasonably curbed. Needless to say we try to avoid the impressive selection of reptiles on offer here, as well as the ever present spiders, the massive centipedes and various other snap-happy creepy crawlies.

15 Leggy Spider

7/8 of a spider – slightly deceptive but disconcerting all the same

For some bizarre reason though, I encounter more than my fair share of big bugs, possibly because I look out for them with a sense of trepidation. And there have been more encounters than I care to recall, frequently in bush toilets, where huge bugs, massive moths, spiders and even frogs have a habit of scaring the living bejeezus out of me when I’m at my most vulnerable. Often enough it makes me reconsider the urgency of the task at hand. Frankly, I consider myself lucky that those events  never needed a change of underwear.
So far, so good.

Scary bathroom lurker

Toilet terror moth

And just like that we discovered the pleasures of bird watching. It is not only infinitely safer than (inadvertent) reptilian spotting but also pretty spectacular given the many bird species that call Australia home. So when we heard about Tyto Wetlands – a local bird fancying magnet in a regenerated wetlands area on the Herbert River floodplain near Ingham – we were decidedly chirpy at the prospect of visiting the place. We timed our visit for late afternoon (to coincide with maximum avian activity) and set off armed with our binoculars, hoping to see a few feathered friends. Well, it must have been our lucky day; we never stopped ooh-ing and aah-ing and saw around 30 different species of birds, some of which we knew but the vast majority of which we’d never laid eyes on before.  We felt overwhelmed and more than a little ignorant at the same time.

Tyto Wetlands looking decidedly Monet

Tyto Wetlands looking decidedly Monet

The ignorance part was promptly addressed by purchasing “Birds of Australia”, the most comprehensive (and a tad unwieldy) bird identification guide. However, leafing through its 580 pages to identify a bird as belonging to the 826 listed species (from 2638 separate illustrations no less) is, well,  a bit more time consuming than I’d envisaged and takes some getting used to. The eradication of one’s ignorance, it appears, requires a great deal of patience. But not to worry, I do like a good challenge, and that it certainly is.

The teeny tiny red backed fairy wren kindly posed long enough

The teeny tiny red backed fairy wren kindly posed long enough

In the process of identifying and remembering birds (the latter being even trickier), we marvel at avian names some of which have the charm of a bunch of beer swilling ornithologists. One might speculate that the poor Drongo, for instance, may well have been the victim of an alcohol impaired naming session.

On the other hand, if it weren’t for weird and wonderful bird names, I’d probably struggle even more to remember them! As for the bloke, he doesn’t seem to remember much at all (on account of a mis-spent youth perhaps) but I daresay he won’t forget being shat on by birds in Tyto. I advised him that good luck was imminent. He retorted that this was a rumour which was probably started by dry cleaners.

The Wet Tropics – Kuranda for starters

After a brief stop in Cairns we made our way to the Kuranda Roots Festival. As the name so coyly suggests, it takes place in Kuranda which lies about 30km or thereabouts in the mountainous hinterland  of Cairns. Driving up the steep road which winds itself around several hairpin corners, we gathered that it’s the vertical distance that matters. By time we’d climbed 330m, we were utterly immersed in the natural wonder that is the World Heritage area of the Wet Tropics. To me it’s the epitome of tropic delights – lush vegetation, dense palm forests and flamboyant foliage amid splashes of colour with the acoustic backdrop of bird calls that sounded as exotic as the birds looked.

Kuranda itself was a thriving hippie community in the 70s but has since transitioned into a bustling tourist town, not least courtesy of Sky Rail, which transports hordes of predominantly Asian day-tripping tourists from Cairns just above the rainforest canopy into the cool lushness of Kuranda. Personally, I don’t get the popularity of gondolas (for me they’re just an efficient method of transportation for skiing), but gazillions of paying punters clearly don’t share my view. They start flooding into Kuranda around 10am and are gone shortly after 3pm.

Downtown Kuranda

Downtown Kuranda

The town is also the destination of a historic railway line which had been mothballed but was reinstated thanks to feisty locals who fought to retain this transport lifeline. It had been the sole source of transport infrastructure when a major dam was built there at the turn of the century; now it has a new lease on life as a scenic railway. Bless the locals!

The town’s colourful past has somehow morphed into a delightful tourist town. Wherever you look, there’s loads of character and ample evidence of things being done just a tad different. It starts with unique townscape ‘accessories’. Street lamps, bollards, fences, rubbish bins, benches and the like are creatively designed and finely crafted; no two seemed identical in their organic bespoke design. This sort of thing often ends up becoming an embarrassing exercise in kitsch (due to councils’ penchant for “design by committee”) – luckily Kuranda spared itself this fate.

and 8 Kuranda Town

The locals struck us as an interesting bunch, often with a creative/artistic bent and everybody we spoke to seems to love Kuranda to bits. When asked why they moved there, we typically heard variants of the same story. It starts something like this “I originally just came here for a brief stay / to visit a friend / to check out the vibe of the place  … and stayed”. Varying numbers of years later, they’re all still there, happy as Larry and continuing to sing the praises of Kuranda. I have a sneaking suspicion that they are secret members of the Kuranda Development Board, and possibly trained by Amway. Either that, or there is something in the air over here that should carry a Government health warning.

I shall investigate this matter further in and will report back. Should we never resurface, you know where to start looking for us.

Rainforest roots

Kuranda Roots Festival, Billabong

Kuranda Roots Festival, Billabong

The festival site was at a stunning property, complete with idyllic billabong, tropical lodge-type building (with an abundance of beautifully created floral arrangements) and lovely gardens. Drop dead gorgeous.

Tropical floral arrangements - a lovely touch at the festival

Tropical floral arrangements – nice detail

We grabbed the best camping spot we found  – unfortunately they were all a bit (or a lot) sloping. It was a bit funny really, because we staggered like drunks when we got out of bed and walked uphill to the shower … in the truck.

The event was all-round good fun. The music on offer was obviously roots with a smattering of acoustic folk and some electronica. Some of us got involved in workshops – my favourite was a Vocal Harmonies Workshop which was held by The Rusty Datsuns whose melodic harmonies are very pretty, engaging and really delightful. The workshop which I attended along with 10 musos was enormous fun and culminated in us accompanying the band on stage for one song. My old choir buddies from the QPAC Choir and the Queensland Festival Chorus would approve, I’m sure.

7 Kuranda Roots Beautiful  Colourful People

The festival had a largely laidback vibe with a hint of Wild West, or Wild North, and great local representation. Especially on Saturday and Sunday it seemed that the entire town had turned up to party. It was particularly nice to see a significant percentage of indigenous Australians in the mix which sadly isn’t an everyday occurrence.

We hung out with heaps of people we already knew from other events or from “on the road”. All in all we had a ball; I think I talked until my throat dried out, laughed until my cheeks went spastic, and danced until my legs could move no more. Yup, that’s my idea of fun!

To Rossville via Daintree and the Bloomfield Track

Choice camping spot in the granite landscape around Mareeba

Choice camping spot in the granite landscape around Mareeba

We left the festival in a happily depleted state and recharged our batteries in various beautiful spots in the rainforest before heading to Mareeba in the Tablelands on our way North. In Mareeba the bloke took care of an engineering alteration on the truck i.e. raising the bicycle carrier from the tow-bar to tray level to provide more ground clearance. This was partially in preparation for our impending drive on the 4WD Bloomfield Track – the coastal connection between Cape Tribulation  and Wujal Wujal (en route to Cooktown) which we’d planned on doing.

We had a week to get ourselves to Bushweek, held in Rossville near Cooktown, the northernmost town accessible via sealed road in Queensland. We realised that a week was little time to explore everything along the way. However, as we knew that we’d return this way again before heading up into the Northern Territory, we delayed our long-awaited exploratory stay in the Atherton Tablelands area for a few weeks. Based on everything we’d heard (and our sneak peak), the tablelands are well worth a prolonged stay!

Looking down on Mossman with Cape Tribulation in the far distance

Looking down on Mossman with Cape Tribulation in the far distance

The area between Cairns and the Daintree National Park was reasonably familiar to us from a previous holiday in the region some years ago. In fact, we had particular fond memories of the Daintree which left me awestruck due to the unspoilt grandeur of the Wet Tropics. I remember experiencing it as hauntingly pure and beautiful and we were looking forward to revisiting it once more.

So after a pleasant couple of days in Mareeba we high-tailed it along the coast. In no time at all we found ourselves on the cable ferry across the Daintree River. On the other side I was once again struck by the world heritage awesomeness that is the Daintree. It’s promoted as “where the rainforest meets the reef” which is rather apt I think and hints at the dual world heritage status.

Getting onto the Daintree River Ferry

Getting onto the Daintree River Ferry

At around 120,000 hectares the national park is also rather vast, and further highly regarded for the extraordinary biodiversity, including many rare species, and rich birdlife such as the endangered Cassowary which we spotted in the wild. This emu sized flightless bird has a somewhat unfortunate demeanour with a blue face and black mohawk-like horny structure on its head. To me it somehow looks like a bizarre cartoon version of a very angry punk bird. Mind you, not that I’d want to make fun of the animal or provoke it in any way – I’m well aware that its self defence mechanisms are legendary. I’ve seen the claws, I come in peace.

The large egg sized Cassowary Plum. No prize for guessing who loves eating it.

The large egg sized Cassowary Plum. No prize for guessing who loves eating it.

The vegetation, like in other areas of the Wet Tropics, is sublime and also includes the playful looking Daintree Fan Palm with its distinct circular fronds (my favourite),  as well as a huge variety of weird and wonderful fruiting trees. All in all, there’s something very special about the place that defies description; it just feels out of the ordinary and still makes my heart skip a beat.

12 Daintree Fan Palm leaf in background

On the note of cardiac irregularities – as we were about to enter the Bloomfield Track, the bloke suggests that I might hop into the driving seat and be the one to take the truck through its 4WD paces.  All I could mutter was a feeble “Ya reckon?” before I remembered my favourite saying , “how hard can it be”.

Well, thanks to firmly pulled up boot straps and some expert direction from my co-driver it all went swimmingly. Not that it’s a particularly difficult route or has especially tricky river crossings, but at our size and weight we’re quite a bit slower than the many nimble Landcruisers et al. that hurtle up and down the track; overtaking maneuvers could be character building. Several amazingly steep sections (22 – 24% gradient!) with hairpin corners at the top meant we were crawling along in 1st gear … and that’s in low-ratio. I can assure you, I was unbelievably glad we didn’t encounter oncoming vehicles on those sections where it felt like I was making an elephant walk up a vertical wall; I vividly recall increased perspiration and a swiftly beating heart.

Bloomfield Track river crossing

Bloomfield Track river crossing

I guess if a blonde chick in a 6 ton truck can do the Bloomfield Track, anybody can.

We stopped in a few places to feel the remote wilderness and check out the Bloomfield River taking care not to come in contact with a massive resident croc that we were told to watch out for. As an aside, it always cracks me up when locals warn you to watch out for a particularly large croc; the implication being that normal sized ones somehow don’t pose a problem to one’s health! Well, my snappy equation looks like this: Croc = Danger

13 Daintree creek landscape

Glorious Bushweek

We frequently meet the same fellow itinerants in various places, and when we strike up a friendship we see where our respective routes overlap and meet up when possible. Vicki, whom we first met in Bowen, has been a rather regular contact and much to our delight, she decided to come to Bushweek also. In absence of mobile coverage (we’d been off grid for a week) we relied on meeting up at the event. But the stars aligned just perfectly for her to find us in a secluded overnight spot, barely visible from the road just out of Rossville.

We made our way to the festival location at “Home Rule” Lodge, which was at the end of a 3km long gravel driveway disguised as a ‘green tunnel’ through the rainforest. It wasn’t difficult to feel comfortable there; the property had beautiful large open spaces, was surrounded by dense rainforest and had a pristine river running through it that looked like it was made for a tourism ad. Some great walks, including a 40-minute hike through the forest to a couple of swimming holes at the base of a breathtaking double waterfall (that also fed the local drinking water) completed the idyllic picture.

Home Rule waterfall and swimming hole

Home Rule waterfall and swimming hole

And then there was the festival itself. Bushweek is quite unique in that it is almost wholly created by participants. When we got there on Sunday afternoon, the festival area was essentially a field with a few vehicles and some very basic festival infrastructure. Then, throughout the week, the stages and decorations were constructed and installed – all with substantial help from those of us who volunteered to participate in workshops where we contributed as much or as little as they felt like – sounds and lights were installed, merchants arrived, and by the weekend, the festival population swelled to around 800.

"Snake Head" being constructed

“Snake Head” being constructed

Coconut palm fronds being woven into snake skales

Coconut palm fronds being woven into snake skales

Part of the Bushweek festival site

Part of the Bushweek festival site

During the week there were various other workshops, many impromptu events and lots of socialising in an ever increasing party atmosphere that erupted on Friday when everybody got loose for a weekend of merry mayhem in this spectacular natural setting. The curious part was that we had witnessed the transformation throughout the week, and yet when it was all lit up, switched on and turned up on the night, it somehow seemed like an act of magic.

The main stage area, in a dell with a forest backdrop, was contained within a gigantic snake inspired structure created from materials harvested on site – bamboo and coconut fronds that were woven to depict snake scales. The crowning glory was the stage /DJ booth between the gaping fangs in the mouth of the snake. All of it was cleverly designed to fit the space and to be executed by a largely volunteer workforce;  it was also beautifully lit to enhance the natural setting and create a ‘wonderland feel’. It’s one of those things you had to see to believe. (Much to my shame, I was far too busy having fun and never took any decent photos to document this. Mea culpa.

Snake head / DJ booth being dismantled

Snake head / DJ booth being dismantled

23 Bushweek Snake Head dismantling

As we were dancing our legs off amid this tropical fairyland I sported a perma-grin on my face. Judging by the people around us, it seemed to be a universal phenomenon. “Pinch me”, I said to the bloke at one point; it all just seemed too surreal. He couldn’t hear and asked me to repeat what I’d said a couple of times which I did until I finally screamed it at the top of my lungs … just at the time as the music stopped. Now my desire to be pinched was heard near and far, producing looks that more or less suggested the likelihood of a kinky predisposition on my part.

That’s when you appreciate an accepting, open minded and non-judgmental audience.

We were really taken by the genuinely social vibe of the festival. It was all about peace, love, unity, respect and sharing. For those of you wondering whatever happened to the hippie movement, you can find it alive and well at Bushweek.

While the music may not be to everybody’s liking, most people would benefit from attending Bushweek to experience the participation and creation of an event within a tremendous social fabric.

Weaving a sun hat from a coconut palm frond

Weaving a sun hat from a coconut palm frond

A selection of favourite memories:
the fantastic experience of looking through Tim’s humungous reflecting telescope and clearly seeing Saturn’s rings – and moons! – as part of astronomy workshops he held; being taught by one of our camp neighbours (Robbie – a gifted saxophonist, harp builder and player) to weave a sunhat from a palm frond; daily Yoga sessions with Joss (a fellow Sambista and fabulous Yoga teacher) further supported by our good mate Vicki who lives and breathes Yoga and is a source of great inspiration to practice it daily.

For the bloke and myself, Bushweek has been a real highlight. We’ll fondly remember the many extraordinary people we met there and their unconventional lifestyles. Their generosity of spirit, their philosophy and their wisdom has enriched our life.
We’d return in a heartbeat.

Keeping the Cook in Cooktown

After nine days at Home Rule/Bushweek, we drove the 30 or so km to Cooktown to ease our way back into normal life. Cooktown was perfect for that as it had an influx of Bushweek people to help with the transition, and also it’s super relaxed all of its own with a hint of renegade vibe that reverberates the town’s outpost character.

31 Cooktown aerial

Initially we were surprised at its size; we somehow expected it to be quite a bit larger given its importance as the northernmost outpost and centre of the York Peninsula. Its colourful history as a bustling town during the Palmer River gold rush is well documented. By the 1870s it was the destination of choice for dreamers, traders and schemers, had a pub on every corner and about 15,000 gold miners on the river, 10,000 of them were Chinese. Displays in the Cooktown Museum (an excellent regional museum, by the way) informed us that Cooktown had the largest Chinese population of any place in Australia then and in 1875 (if my memory serves me well) 1000 new Chinese arrivals came  every month by ship. Paintings show the port full of ships and it was noted at the time that only Brisbane had more ships in port.

26 Cooktown

The overpowering presence in the town, however, is of course the namesake of the town, Captain Cook. He’s ever present in monuments, plaques, street names, places of interest,  and just about everything else you can think of including the Botanic Gardens, and the museum which is largely devoted to Captain Cook displays.

Racy real estate

Racy real estate

He landed there in 1770 with a severely damaged ship having run afoul of the Great Barrier Reef. But his misfortune was the museum’s gain – it has all manner of artefacts and documents for even the most serious Cookaholic – you can see an original cannon (jettisoned from the listing ship) and one of its original anchors as well as documents about just about anything else you might think of. Cook, after all, stayed in Cooktown longer than anywhere else on his voyage so it’s perhaps fitting that his achievements should be celebrated here.

27 Cooktown

I learned a lot of interesting things. My favourite is this: “Captain Cook chased a chook all around Australia. He lost his pants in the middle of France and found them in Tasmania.”
You’re welcome.

As a botanical nut, I’m prone to dragging the bloke around Botanical Gardens; On this note, I’m pleased to report that Cooktown’s own – one of Australia’s oldest Botanic Gardens – is a good one to visit. It has a fantastic selection of plants that are home in the Dry Tropics and a great variety of bush tucker plants. We were lucky enough to attend a guided tour by the garden’s curator, a very knowledgeable botanist, bush tucker enthusiast and all-round plant enthusiast who introduced us to many indigenous plants we’d never heard of such as the native peanut tree, the fruit of which is considered far superior to the commercial peanut.

The flowers of the Red Beach  (or Golden Guinea Tree) have a firework thing going on, but only last one day.

The flowers of the Red Beach (or Golden Guinea Tree) have a firework thing going on, but only last one day.

I loved the well prepared interpretive information and especially enjoyed that the garden featured all the plants that the head naturalist aboard the Endeavour, Sir John Banks and Daniel Solander, collected while the ship was being repaired.

Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman’s Wharf

Upwards and onwards

From Cooktown, we had originally planned to drive all the way up to the top bit of Cape York. However, my interest waned some time ago when I started pondering the wisdom, practicalities and implications of driving some 1000km on 4WD tracks of varying quality (much of it with corrugations that would swallow a small car). The bloke, on the other hand, still kept it on the “to do” list; that is, until we witnessed the procession of 4WDs on the Bloomfield Track on their way along the Holy Trail. When we spoke with some of those on their return journey and heard about the many convoys, it finally sealed it for the bloke also. He didn’t see the point in doing it anymore. The hordes had taken the gloss of this particular endeavour; a mass adventure isn’t part of our religion.

We’re now looking at other interesting tracks i.e. roads less travelled and thus more enticing.

Housekeeping (and an apology of sorts)

I’m aware this is a very long post. It worked out that way because I lacked time, inspiration, power or internet connection to post earlier or more frequently. And yes, I do sufferer from verbal diarrhoea at the best of times. Without a word limit – or somebody interrupting me – I’m prone to go on ad infinitum.  You’ve witnessed it here.

I’ve also had several nudges from people asking about the next post. If you’d like to be notified when I’ll add a new post, perhaps you’d like to subscribe to the blog. You’ll find a small flag with “follow” on the bottom right hand side of the screen. Just add your details and you should receive an email from WordPress to confirm your subscription. I think you may need to click on a link to activate your subscription, then you’ll receive updates.

And lastly, I’d love it if you said hi when you visit this blog. While I’m in touch with a few readers in real life, I sometimes wonder who (if anybody) else shares in our adventures via this blog. It kinda makes my day when there’s a comment, so don’t be shy in indulging me 🙂