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The beaches around Cairns and along the gorgeous northern coastline hardly need an introduction. They’ve long been favourite destinations for local and international holidaymakers alike who practically stumble from one beautiful beach to the next. There’s also the perfectly situated ritzy resort town of Port Douglas that caters for a well-heeled clientele with many stylish shops, galleries and upmarket eateries.
Some years ago we were among the droves that stream into Port Douglas for a tropical mid-winter break. It proved a perfect base to explore a bit of Far North Queensland.
And since we were in the neighbourhood once again, a return visit was on order. We also figured it was high time to reacquaint ourselves with civilisation, especially since we’d spent a fair bit of time in the bush, hung out with hippies and were frankly showing signs of going feral.
Before we knew it, we were surrounded by beautiful people in beautiful clothes driving beautiful cars the likes of which we hadn’t seen in months.
And then there’s that awkward moment when you realise you haven’t shaved your legs in way too long.
Port Douglas, it seems, is good for highlighting one’s slipping standards, or one’s changed outlook. Or both.
On the other hand, it was also nice to do the grocery shopping in a supermarket that carried all the specialist items that we craved but hadn’t seen in a while. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose. Although, going by the prices they charged, they must get them delivered by carrier pigeon or horse-drawn crystal carriage. Come to think of it, they probably also deliver all fresh produce in this expensive manner throughout north Queensland, because the prices we’ve encountered to date are positively eye watering. Want some representative non-special price samples? Tomatoes $6 – 9/kg, capsicum $6 – 8/kg, potatoes $5/kg, apples $3.50 – $5, oranges/mandarins $4 – 6/kg, grapes $8 – 12/kg. You get the picture.
I’m starting to notice that the wallet weighs more before we enter the store, than the shopping we leave with.
Thank heavens for the occasional Supermarket specials. If it weren’t for them, we’d probably re-evaluate our quarter century commitment to vegetarianism, or maybe we’d start busking for fresh fruit & vege!
Anyhoo, we reminded ourselves that the beaches are world class and headed to the glorious sands where we plonked our slimming arses (the only positive aspect of high food prices!), slowly adjusting to the novelty of being in a bustling seaside resort for once. It also afforded us an opportunity to do a bit of people watching. A propos – can anybody enlighten me please: when did ladies start carrying dressy handbags for a walk on the beach? I don’t recall receiving that particular memo.
Put da lime in da coconut
One of several redeeming features of Queensland’s northern beaches is the profusion of coconut palms. They’ve become our newest best friends on account of their nuts, specifically the water they contain! For all intents and purposes we’ve become coconut-o-holics; and it’s as much of a surprise to me as to anybody else.
In the past I’d always considered coconut water to be as exciting as unwashed socks, and definitely not worth leaving home for. However, for one reason or another (umm … nothing to do with the well-publicised coconut water craze, ok!) I thought I’d try it again and bought a beautiful swollen coconut for $5 from a market stand and decided to follow the seller’s advice and squeezed some lime juice into it.
Well, what can I say – the result was orgasmic! I reluctantly shared the heavenly beverage with the bloke. Neither of us could get enough of it.
As mentioned, the good thing is that coconuts are plentiful along the beaches. The unfortunate thing is that the abundant bounty is bloody high up in the palms and getting to them, let alone harvesting them, isn’t at all easy, unless you were born into a monkey family. To make matters more difficult still, it turns out that palms are frequently inhabited by green tree ants – rather aggressive buggers with a decent bite that stings alright. However, strictly speaking, they don’t sting – they bite a hole in your skin, then impolitely squirt formic acid into the wound. Sadists!
Anyway, they like to attack in numbers and when they do, I can assure you, they will have you dancing a jig in no time. What’s more, they seem to have a habit of biting aspiring palm climbing nut harvesters in very tender places, between the toes (the big toes, that is).
Deplorably, when the bloke realised that coconut harvesting attempts came with a degree of self-sacrifice, he promptly lost all interest in fostering our burgeoning nut addiction. He went so far as to suggest that only an utter nutter would expect him to accept the risk to life and family jewels. No amount of sweet talking on my part could change his resolve. Cold turkey for dinner.
Rather than dwell on my disappointment, I went for a walk and waited for good fortune to intervene. Barely a few minutes later it promptly did as I stumbled onto more than a dozen freshly harvested young coconuts that had been carelessly biffed into the bushes, presumably by council contractors who regularly castrate the trees to avoid falling consequences.
We soon gorged ourselves on coconut water, with a spritz of lime juice of course. However, I hasten to add that we probably won’t do that again in those vast quantities. It turns out that coconut water is an effective diuretic (I haven’t peed that frequently since I was pregnant) and a mild laxative (thank heavens for our toilet!)
Bodily functions aside, I was in heaven!
There was only one fly in the ointment. And it wasn’t so much a fly, as swarms of mosquitoes, midges and various other insects of the biting and stinging variety. They seem to find me irresistible and I end up being covered in painful bites regardless of deterrents used, while the bloke is left alone. Needless to say, the coastal rainforest and mangroves are riddled with the little suckers, and I ended up with well over 100 festering bites all over my body. It did not make for a happy time and even industrial quantities of anti-histamines made life barely worth living.
In light of relatively recent outbreaks of Ross River Virus and Dengue Fever (both of which transferred by mosquitoes and long-term fairly unpleasant for the patient) we high-tailed it into the high country.
Delectable Atherton Tablelands
We’d already had a wee taste of the Tablelands when we attended the festival in Kuranda but didn’t have time to look at the area further before heading north to Bushweek. Now was our opportunity to check out the tablelands well and proper with its main centre of Mareeba, and the attractive country towns of Atherton, Yungaburra and Malanda; each home to just a few thousand people.
The Tablelands as a whole features superbly attractive hilly countryside with native forests, spectacular river valleys littered with massive granite boulders, very fertile farmland, and – of huge surprise to us – curiously diverse micro climates: from wet rainforest through to dry savannah, with equally contrasting temperatures that may differ over 10 degrees at any given time!
Just about everything and anything is, or can be, grown here: tropical fruits, coffee, citrus, market garden vegetables, sugar cane, berries, avocados, grains – you name it, they grow it. The communities are equally diverse and prosperous. There’s evidence of an interesting alternative/holistic scene with bio-dynamic farms, organic orchards and various artisan food producers.
It’s pretty much a pocket version of everything you could possibly want.
Going with the flow – Davies Creek et al.
As devotees of ‘freedom camping in the wilderness’, we always look for great spots and here also, we were lucky enough to find some outstanding camping, several of them next to pristine rivers and often enough courtesy of helpful tips from friendly locals. That’s how we ended up camped in a pretty little private pocket near Koah, right next to the McLeod River which, as we found out, is home to platypus, yabbies (small fresh water crayfish), well-fed eels among other aquatic creatures.
We met the guy who lives on the adjoining property who turned out to be the local cop. After fulfilling his official ‘bad cop’ duty and asking us if we knew that we were camped illegally (“yes, but we’re freedom campers and we leave the place cleaner than we found it”), he proceeded to give us a few other tips of choice camping spots down the road. Good cop.
He also cautioned us not to be alarmed, but a “pretty massive” python lives where we were camped; she’s at the very least 5 or 6 metres by his reckoning.
Unfortunately we never met the snake (or thankfully, depending on the circumstances of any such meeting). For all we knew, it might have been curled up in a tree above us digesting dinner, while we were chewing the fat over our camp fire.
One of the most special spots turned out to be Davies Creek National Park. And that’s a surprise because it wouldn’t have made it onto our radar if it wasn’t for one of the locals who urged us to go there – incidentally it was one of the many fellow Bushweekers we’ve been running into since the festival.
Davies Creek is a mountainous river landscape complete with waterfall, utterly spectacular granite boulders, swimming holes (including an aboriginal birthing pool), in a total zen space. The energy of the place was such that we were bereft of words. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven!
It was like some form of adventure playground for grown-ups, and had us climbing around the boulders finding ever more amazing views, stonescapes and that certain je ne sais quoi. As an enthusiastic apprentice yogi (and influenced by our travel buddy Vicki, the Yoga Queen, who finds picture perfect spots for her daily practice) I couldn’t help noticing that several flat rocks were perfect for a session. Said … done. It was a case of ‘you had to be there’ …
After three days in this wonderland, doing yoga on pretty much every suitable rock, and barely encountering another soul (being there mid-week and outside of school holidays helped a great deal, no doubt), we left this enchanted place feeling like we’d been to a spa for body, mind and soul.
Sounds cheesy, eh?! But boy, it’s true.
When we got to Mareeba, by contrast – the commercial heart of the Tablelands – it almost felt like we’d entered the big smoke; admittedly more than a slight exaggeration as the town doesn’t even have traffic lights. But what really bothered us were the hordes of caravans and motorhomes that were descending on the town. Was there a mobile home convention, we were asking ourselves? Well, it wasn’t long until some Grey Nomad approached us to ask if we’d be at the midwinter Christmas thingy for motorhomers. We were proudly told that last year 380 vehicles attended and this year they were looking at cracking the 400 mark.
How, could we refuse?
Easy – say “no” very quickly and run the other way!
About Grey Nomads
At this point, I should declare that we keep more than a safe driving distance from the hordes of Grey Nomads that roam the highways of Australia. We discovered fairly early along our trip that we have very little, if anything, in common. They tend to travel and huddle around in flocks, when they arrive anywhere they immediately start arranging their satellite TV antennae (typically spending an inordinate amount of time on this activity), then they park themselves in chairs under their awning and start drinking with their grey nomad buddies, getting up only to get some bevvies from the fridge, or turn on their noisy generators. And most puzzling of all: for some bizarre reason the guys all wear white socks, and sometimes even ironed shorts. It’s probably some sort of uniform. Maybe there’s also a secret handshake.
Now, I don’t want to seem uncharitable, but they just seemed to be the most excruciatingly boring people we’ve ever met. Not our scene, no siree! Still scarred from those early experiences, we realised we had to get out of town. Fast.
Chilling out in Chillagoe
We arranged to meet up with Vicki in Mareeba. The plan was to travel to Chillagoe, a small back country settlement way out in the savannah where the dusty Outback slowly merges into the outskirts of the Tableland.
The town had its heyday in the glory days of tin and copper mining, but still remains relatively popular due to its stunning geology, an assortment of beautiful caves and a distinct sense of remoteness that belies the relatively easy driving distance (160km from Mareeba, the last 30 odd km being dirt road).
Apart from a teeny-tiny general store, a garage (whose owner, Tommy, has an impressive and surprisingly valuable collection of Fords), an ‘eco lodge’, and a defunct butcher’s shop, Chillagoe also has two pubs which seems generous given its population of 310. Unless there’s a steady stream of thirsty visitors, I’d hazard a guess that the locals get on the piss fairly frequently. Who knows, maybe there really isn’t much else to do?
The landscape, however, is breathtakingly spectacular on account of dramatic limestone formations, both above and below ground. Geology buffs, I’m told, find it of huge interest as it’s apparently considered the geologically most diverse area in the world – something to do with it having once been the site of an ancient coral reef. There are also literally hundreds of caves in the area (560 known caves!) and they attract a fair number of cavemen or whatever caving enthusiasts call themselves.
Quite aside the natural attributes, I discovered a shady side to Chillagoe which reminded me of the regular corruption scandals that involve Australian politicians (most recently former Labor MP “power broking” scum Eddie Obeid). I was amused to learn that tiny Chillagoe had its own massive corruption scandal back in the day. It was known as the Mungana Affair and involved two prominent politicians (premiers of Qld, no less) who initiated the sale of mining properties to the Queensland government, at a grossly inflated price.
And the fact that they secretly held ownerships in the properties will surprise exactly nobody. Or perhaps only those who write letters to the Tooth Fairy, and get a response.
Despite the historic sculduggery, we left with more upbeat memories of Mungana having visited the Mungana caves and camped (possibly illegally, but hey, at least we didn’t fleece the taxpayer of huge sums of money) amidst a spectacular environment with the most dramatic rock formation as backdrop and nobody else within sight – apart from noisy flocks of birds, especially galahs and, much to my visual delight, there were black cockatoos as well as red tailed black cockatoos en masse. While they proved devilishly tricky to photograph (especially with my compact point-and-shoot-camera) they had us oohing and aahing in unison.
Swinging with Hillbillies in Irvinebank
While in Chillagoe, we got to know Mark, an Atherton resident, who had also travelled through Australia extensively, in fact for some six years. (Does anybody in this country stay put in one place for, like, ever?) We compared notes and found that we’re on much the same wavelength enjoying out-of-the-way places and local events sans tourism hype. We also arranged to catch up in Atherton for some mountain biking.
Just after we made it back from Chillagoe, he sent us a text to say that we might enjoy the Irvinebank Festival. It was being held that weekend.
Hell’s bells! How did he find out that we’re festival sluts?
A quick google search revealed that the festival was a free event (hallelujah!) held in honour of mining pioneer John Moffat, with many competitions and live music (hillbilly, honkytonk and bluegrass). A look at the map showed us where Irvinebank was (way out in the wilderness).
What the hell; we figured we hadn’t been on a dirt road for, well, at least a few days now, and besides it would be fun to trek out there and party hillbilly style.
We did just that.
It was a friendly local shindig, organised by the pub in Irvinebank. There were some delightful market stalls, foot tapping live music (The Hillbilly Goats, among others), fair dinkum bush poetry, a clever demonstration of geese being herded by a sheep dog, and loads of competitions (some with jaw dropping performances): sand shovelling, rock drilling, tin carrying (that’s the metal, not the container; 100kg for guys, 50kg for gals), truck pulling, tug-of-war, and more. It was the most wholesome entertainment we’d seen in a long time and there was a real sense that it was a treasured annual community event. Locals who came from near and far had been looking forward to it for months and several of them had been in serious training for their chosen competition ‘discipline’. By Saturday night though, the most popular discipline was clearly beer drinking. And from what I could tell, they’d trained for that too.
More tableland fun with truckie and friends
As you may gather by now, it’s difficult to extract ourselves from the Tablelands. There is so much on offer that was yet to be experienced. After all, nobody wants to miss out, right?!
We knew we wanted to start checking out the lakes but had a bit of maintenance to take care of beforehand. That is, the bloke did the blokey thing and gave Truckie the mechanical equivalent of a spa facial, scrub and massage. We were actually super lucky in getting permission to stay on a semi commercial site in downtown Atherton where the bloke could do his thing – out of earshot of anybody who might take offence at his advanced French language skills which tend to emerge when things don’t go as planned. As a matter of fact, things went largely as planned. There was only one little incident. It started when I noted what looked like tiny spiders on me.
The next morning, the bloke asks me to inspect two painful spots on his back. I take a quick look at two black spots through sleepy eyes and tell him that he needs to see a doctor quick. “You’ve bloody well got two melanoma spots!” I said, surprising myself by that. He flatly dismissed my diagnosis and asserts that “nobody gets cancer overnight”! I immediately stop planning the funeral, rub sleep out of my eyes, grab the magnifying glass and take a closer look.
Holy smoke – it looked like two monsters were growing in his back! (It occurred to me that I probably shouldn’t have looked through the massive magnification part). “Eww … gross!” I shrieked and took a photo to prove it. “Ticks,” he declared nonplussed.
Right then I remembered the two tiny spiders that were on me the day before. They seemed to be rather‘sticky’ when I tried to brush them off. I eventually flicked them … sort of in the general direction towards the bloke. I couldn’t have known!
In my defence, I did a clever thing and smothered the ticks in tea tree oil which seemed to make them stop moving. In the end though, medical attention was necessary to remove the suckers. However, they were dead on arrival. I’d already killed them.
Just call me “Great White Hunter”.
After the mechanical and medical interlude, we headed to Lake Tinaroo, a popular lake that was created in 1958 when the river was dammed, largely for irrigation purposes but also for power generation. We found ourselves a fabulously private camping hideaway, right on the lakefront no less.
We also met up (again) with our ‘old’ mate Vicki and our more recently acquired mate, Frank, who is the most intrepid adventurer, bushman extraordinare and gifted photographer you’ll ever meet. He has been travelling this great country for eight years now, living out of the back of his converted Landcruiser, amassing a bloody impressive list of adventuring credentials. I very much doubt we’ll ever meet another person who has crossed the Simpson Desert – alone!
Truly a legend!
It’s really nice to celebrate the on-the-road-connections we continue to make, where it’s evident that they’re mutually enjoyable. Several will likely remain friends for a long time and most we’ll never forget. In this vein, we have met up with an array of interesting folks, most of whom are fairly nonconformist, some downright eccentric, but all have been enriching in one way or another. It adds a great deal of colour and social texture to our experience … and it means that the bloke gets a break from his (sometimes too) vocal half once in a while.
Winners all round.