Trip to `The Tip'

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Trip to `The Tip'

We are 500km north of Cairns, and heading for the tip of Cape York - via Musgrave Roadhouse, Morton and Bramwell Junction - on road corrugations that loosen teeth, across creeks, rivers and dangerous dust holes, while dodging drifts of wandering 'droughtmaster' cattle.

Then it's the famed Jardine Ferry - a motorized, cable driven flat-bottom barge - on to Bamaga and finally 'The Tip'... an understated title that takes a bit of getting used to. Nevertheless, it is the most northern tip of mainland Australia... right here... where we stand on this wild rocky outcrop. And it really is Torres Strait that lay before us - after 4-months on the road - our most northern mainland frontier, a romantic realm of past explorers and somehow-exotic halfway islands... with Papua New Guinea just over there. 

But we are not alone, having been lucky to meet Wendy and Al from the Gold Coast who share the rough and tumble ride of the more challenging top end side trips - their wine-red Landcruiser meticulously prepared for the journey.  And this is a pilgrimage of sorts for many others that come this way too, most seemingly returning home the exact same way in the quickest manner possible - an eclectic gaggle of grey nomads, extended families, friends, loners, clubs and couples. Some have 'Tip' team shirts especially printed, in the brightest fluoro colours with their very own meaningful message.

Others see it as a test of nerve and a culmination of their 4WD adventure trek - to conquer the iconic Old Telegraph Track - a sort-of coming of age initiation where the toughness of both vehicle and driver are tested, with any subsequent wreckage or scars paraded with pride and bragged about for years to come.

At The Tip today the east wind is fresh on the side of our faces, the air salty, with hot, stinging sun giving way to intermittent drifts of rain. We gaze north across a narrow strait to York Island, past a pod of pilot whales that surface and sink, as they journey east. A gigantic turtle suns itself on the surface and a 4m croc heads west to who knows where.

But the  wildlife can wait as we all take turns standing by A RICKETY SIGN ON A POST, for the compulsory photo opportunity. 'The Teeshirts' toss in a fishing line and pose for additional action snaps. One dad nudges his 4yo son close to the edge for a better photo and barks instructions on how to cast a fishing line... so close that we fear the poor kid may slip in his rubber thongs and tumble into the same heaving water that throws spray onto his tiny feet.

But there's no denying the place is special, even with the rain and wind, the constant stream of scrambling souls like us, the whirr of an overhead drone and the whiff of cigarette smoke here and there.

It is sad though, to think of someone willingly leaving litter at a place like this... of the occasional coke can, plastic drink bottle or butt that threaten to make The Tip 'a tip'. And it is disappointing to think of those almost anonymous persons travelling from far away while carrying a can of paint to leave their mark on these ancient protruding rocks that have sat here forever, the first Australians choosing to leave them untouched for 65,000yrs.

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Never smile at a crocodile

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Never smile at a crocodile

Some years' ago when visiting East Timor, I asked a silly question. I recall the kids looking temporarily perplexed, a frown replacing their normal smiling countenance. Crocodiles? "Yes of course mister, they are here in our swimming holes. But when they come, we get out of the water."

It was in the Kimberley of West Australia when we next experienced the saltwater croc factor, one cruising right past our chartered yacht 1km out at sea, and others coming in with the 12m tides, forcing us to flee from sublime rockpools in our motorised dingy back to the safety of our yacht lying just offshore.

But now we are lucky to be in Queensland - Lakefield National Park -having travelled over 500km since that first warning sign... a simple sandwich board sitting on the Cardwell Beach promenade. 'WARNING - ACHTUNG - Recent crocodile sighting in this area'

And today we've finally seen our very first Queensland saltie, here at Catfish Billabong, Lakefield - the second largest park in Queensland - and as always up here, with brightly-coloured warning signs, and reports of nearby saltie sightings.

This specimen is just 1.5m, sort of cute and seemingly fast asleep in the midday sun, on a nice flat rock overlooking a placid Monet pond of white waterlilies with yellow centres.

But it's sure hard to imagine this baby beastie warrants the ubiquitous warnings: "

Crocodiles inhabit this area - attacks may cause injury or death.

*Keep away from the water's edge when launching or retrieving boats.

*Do not clean fish or fish waste near the water's edge.

*Camp well away from water.

And it goes without saying of course... never... ever... smile at a crocodile.

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Beyond the Bloomfield Track

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Beyond the Bloomfield Track

It's a day's drive from Cooktown to the 537,000Ha Lakefield National Park, finally setting up camp at Horshoe Lagoon, a serene patch of water covered in white lillies and a favourite haunt of brolgas, parrots and assorted waterbirds.

At the end of the day we meet a group of twitchers camped across the way, having also arrived from Cooktown. "You've come from the south," they ask, eyebrows raised, "from the Daintree, then Cooktown?" We both nod. "You saw the accident on the Bloomfield?" Ah, no. We know nothing of any 'accident'.

Our neighbours are visibly shaken and tell us a vehicle travelling south towing a large trailor-van lost control on a downhill section of the Cowie Range. "You must have seen it!" The driver was badly injured, they tell us, the van and vehicle wrecked, with stunned onlookers sitting around while awaiting an ambulance.

We look at each other but say nothing. As it happens, we did pass an ambulance travelling south that morning... but with no siren and no apparent urgency.

We spend a restless night, our sleep disrupted by wild pigs that grunt and slosh in the shallows just metres from our parked truck... us bothered by thoughts of the Bloomfield Track - with its river crossings and one particularly steep section through the Cowie Range - and us travelling that same treacherous section of the Bloomfield Track uphill, needing low 4WD and 1st gear, maybe minutes before the accident.

The next day we briefly pick up some phone coverage while travelling, a Google search confirming the injured driver was killed on impact.

Postcript - 30 June 2017 - At Laura, Queensland, for the Cape York Aboriginal Dance Festival, a Daintree Parks Ranger tells us there have been 3- Daintree road fatalities in the last 2-months.

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Local info rules, OK?

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Local info rules, OK?

From the Daintree and Cape Tribulation we drive up the iconic Bloomfield Track to Cooktown, to then head directly north and the isolated Cape Melville on our roundabout route to Cape York - until today that is. But as always, we've wondered about the condition of the roads, and it's not until Cooktown where we finally get the low-down... the good oil... the truth about the actual situation on the ground up there at Melville.

Jane works at the Tourist Information Centre and cafe, just by the Botanical Gardens, and is eager to help with a wealth of advice after having been in The Gulf regional health field for many years.

She scratches her head, tilting her head to one side. Jane seems to recall a possible problem with our plan. "Well it's like this", Jane says. "You just can't beat local info... and I do remember... something." She screws up her eyes in deep thought, deferring to a tall visitor in khaki sitting on the veranda.

"Yeah", the man says, tweaking the wide, warped brim of a lopsided Akubra that's seen more than its share of Gulf weather, "it's been pretty damn wet up there for this time of year, even Park rangers haven't been in yet." He shakes his hatted head. "In fact there's someone stuck out there right now." He nods knowingly, seems to be talking more to himself now. "Had to get a chopper to lift those blokes out. Mmmm... up here for a boys' weekend." His smile is a thin smile. "A pretty expensive exercise that, 'specially since they should never have been up there in the first place."

We thank him and Jane for the info, and order Jane's zucchini chocolate cake and 2-flat whites, our maps, booklets and pamphlets in piles on the table.

It's true we have our GPS, hard-copy maps, phones, internet and  iPad. But we definitely get the picture. Up here, we are learning that things can get sticky at the drop of a grotty Gulf hat... and it's local knowledge that wins every time.

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A Daintree dreaming

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A Daintree dreaming

As it happens, I've been here before... to The Daintree that is. And it is a bit odd, to travel back in time as much as 30yrs, when a piece of the puzzle seems to be missing.

I remember a resort right here... somewhere... a glorious concoction of timber, of walkways and treehouses, surrounded by jungle straddling a tarred road that peters out to a 4WD track eventually reaching Cooktown and `The Tip'.

But here we are, me with a fading, almost-mythical memory of a place that may never have existed at all. And it's only after several trips up and down the road, that Sue spots an overgrown, partly-obscured sign on the side of the road - a once-stylish, flourescent sign, now washed-out and broken.

On the beach side of the road is what's left of the cafe, bar, 2-pools now of the brightest green and gift shop, timber walkways and drive through, now broken, rotting and engulfed by this voracious world-famous rainforest, the air alive with morning birdsong and awash with the rush of nearby waves on golden sand.

Up the mountain is the accommodation - what's left of once-glorious treehouse lodges, the grand reception and restaurant, windows crooked and broken, many timber steps and much of the deck rotten. Jungle vines hang, ferns smother and choke, but we push on through. Trees and palms sprout in sodden tropical air, the smell of bats thick, the rampant foliage always damp, eagerly reclaiming its own... and the dreams of all that passed this way.

The owner's vision was to create something special here, The Daintree already special... something special memories are made of, a realized dream that lingers and stays with all that are lucky to have visited here.

But now we stand in a heavy, humid midday silence, the ghostly echoes of guests' footsteps long, long gone... with the owner of the original `Coconuts Resort' having abandoned this dream years back, eventually beaten by the regular, unrelenting, dreary wet seasons - and the absence of guests - finally surrendering to financial ruin and liquidation, followed by a sequence of dreamer-owners who eventually left this place forlorn and empty, at the mercy of the engulfing Amazonian greenery while ensuring the place is even more special as is the way of all lost cities and abandoned dreams.

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Postcard from Etty Bay

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Postcard from Etty Bay

They call this the 'Cassowary Coast' and say it's the best place to spot these endangered beasties in the wild. So that's why we have come, to this tiny but beautiful alcove of a bay - just south of Innisfail, Queensland - with wet rainforest all the way down to the sea. And, as it happens, we have already passed one plain-looking juvenile on arrival, browsing by the side of the road in fading light.

There has been rain, with pools on the ground, mist on the far headland, tropical clouds black as we set up camp tucked in a corner between forest and beach, the heavy tropical air loaded with smells... that dank, often pungent mix of permanently wet leaf litter mulch, a multitude of living, breathing leaves in every shade of green and secret flowers we cannot see... and right here, the ozone rich sea mist, the surf and salt from the permanently pounding Pacific.

In the morning we wake to the drifting patter of rain on the roof. There's breakfast of fruit and yoghurt and the obligatory walk on the beach, this time in rain jackets, warm sand beneath bare feet, the air a balmy 24degC.

But we are not alone it seems, met by a beach-going cassowary, a fully grown specimen this time - both sexes looking similar - resplendant in regal but hairy plumage of glistening black... bright blue neck with a splash of red, paler blue cheeks, dangling red wattles and the hallmark wedge-like crown - used to push a path through the thickest forest vines.

Later we receive another unexpected personal visit, and consider ourselves very lucky, this time at camp. There's the slightest pause, and we can't help feeling as though we are being sized-up, up close. That head is raised, turned then cocked, with gleaming, wizened eye... that mighty, clawed front foot paused mid-stride.

We look at each other. Is this the same bird we met earlier on the beach? But suddenly it's gone, having dissapeared back into the seemingly impenetrable rainforest right nextdoor, and we wonder if us human nomads all look alike to a beach-wandering cassowary.

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Twenty thousand K and counting

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Twenty thousand K and counting

We arrive in Townsville on May 30, surprised at how quiet the city centre is... and although there are ATMs about, there seems to be a lack of actual banks. We are told the banks have moved out to the suburbs, but we wonder if the city will follow the new Australian norm these days, with an increase in apartments breathing life back to city CBDs.

Anyway, that's another stage of the journey done and dusted - Byron Bay to Townsville. And it's a bit of a fluke that the completion of this second leg coincides with the truck's trip meter ticking over the 20,000km mark.

So now... our chance to reminisce on some journey discoveries, previously unknown and in order of appearance...

The Stanthorpe Granite Belt Queensland Wineries are a pleasant surprise, us previously not knowing much about them - cool climate at 900m elevation, and some unusual grape types to boot... and a STONE PYRAMID FOLLY AT NEARBY BALLANDEAN.

BINNA BURRA sunsets and fairytale forests at the top of the world.

MORETON ISLAND - long sweeping beaches, white sand, wild inland tracks and Castaways Cafe... with chocolate brownies second to none.

TOOWOOMBA perched on a high escarpment, the second biggest inland city after Canberra - great food and positive vibe, a privately-funded international airport... and some of the best street art we've seen.

Spectacular World Heritage CARNARVON GORGE, with ancient chasms, rockface galleries, ridges and river crossings. And our Sandstone Ridge campsite with a spectacular view.

World Heritage LADY ELLIOT ISLAND sunsets, turtles and giant manta rays.

The small TOWN OF 1770 with beautiful beaches, rocky outcrops and the site of Captain James Cook's first landing in Queensland... and arriving in time for the annual re-enactment festival.

The 'TURKEY CREEK MASSACRE' (or 'How we survived the big bog') - where we take the 4WD 'scenic route' from Agnes Water to Turkey Creek, helping out a fellow traveller along the way.

THE CAPRICORN CAVES - a dry limestone labyrinth, privately owned but a National treasure. 

Our lucky first sighting of platypus in the wild, at EUNGELLA. 

CAPE HILLSBOROUGH wallabies on the beach. Quite a sight, with the added bonus of a serene sunrise.

Beautiful BOWEN, with scenic stacks of boulders, a twist of history, quaint coves and sweeping bays.

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Postcard from Eungella

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Postcard from Eungella

From Capricorn Caves, we drive to Eungella National Park and pull into Broken River camp just before sunset - Eungella being 100km west of Mackay. Although 26degC today, at 900m elevation it gets cold at night, the mountain rainforest dense, with a lush fern and palm understorey.

It's often wet underfoot, especially at night and early morning. And yes, there is the occasional leech. But for a National Park camp as special as this and with only 12-spots, it's a surprise to see only three occupied... and no-one directly on the river bank. There is a little mud, but we do have gumboots and drive right in, our truck bonnet overlooking the river.

We've read about this place some time back, the best chance to see platypus in the wild, but to be honest, we take that claim with a grain of salt as neither of us have ever seen a platypus in the wild.

So it's incredible to believe our luck when we get out of the truck to look down on the river and spot a platypus cruising in our direction, seemingly oblivious of our rapturous attention and focused on his evening meal, followed by another of his brethren sighted just upstream.

With the fading light we listen to a last kookaburra chorus and the white noise of water rushing over rocks upstream, donning jackets as darkness settles, the air dank and earthy, the forest leaves already wet.

After dinner we sit reading under our truck awning and ponder our luck, just how the hell we managed to pull up, park and be immediately treated to a personal visit from an emblematic oddity and a national treasure normally so "solitary, shy and difficult to observe".

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Sunday drive to Turkey Creek

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Sunday drive to Turkey Creek

No, the above picture is not our truck. But there has been lots of rain, the remnants of Cyclone Debbie rending this Queensland track full of waterlogged potholes and a labyrinth of deep muddy ruts. And there's a flying army of biting midges whenever we dare get out of the truck.

We've come from Agnes Water on the coast, turning off to travel the 'scenic route' - only 20km as the crow flies - the track a winding dashed line on our iPad Hema maps... and it is shown on our truck GPS, so we've decided it really does exist and gone with it. It was odd though, for such a short distance, that the GPS added hours onto our anticipated trip time when we changed from its preferred route to our more 'scenic' pick.

We've been bumping along for hours now, dodging tree branches, ruts and flooded potholes as best we can. Amongst the paperbark swamp there's also the occasional creek crossing to deal with, and a local dry detour if we get lucky. For much of the time though, it's best that one of us walks on ahead to test the lay of the land, the depth of water or mud, and give directions... we like to nurse our precious truck as best we can.

There are hazards walking though, the aforementioned midges, my sandaled right foot sinks in a hole of stinking grey mud that sticks like glue... Sue says giving me the appearance of wearing one grey sock. There are also free-range bovine onlookers for the driver to negotiate from time to time, curious mostly, and tending to wander along the track with an air of nonchalant disdain.

Just here there's another bend on this character-building track we've chosen, when almost to the Turkey Beach turnoff... and the white Landcruiser Workmate ute bogged up to its axles.

Jason and Mack have time off from the mines, with Mack's father running a farm near here. They haven't gotten far though, with Mack seeming a little courageous to city slickers like us. In fact he may have chosen the most challenging route from 3-options right here. Nevertheless, Mack is happy to see us, his diff locks not working his recovery gear limited to a snatch strap, and a hydraulic barrel jack that he has somehow managed to prop under the rear axel but is now jammed stuck. He glances up and down the track.  "There's not much traffic about these parts."

As it happens, we have all the recovery gear, never used till now... and are more than happy to help out, knowing all too well that next time it could be us.

The Landcruiser ute comes out with a roar, a splash and a spray of mud, leaving Mack's hydraulic jack swallowed by the watery abyss, like some murky, muddy time capsule planted for another thrillseeking 4WD enthusiast to rediscover years from now.

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Out with the old

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Out with the old

I guess this post begins a couple of weeks back on Moreton Island, where we are presented with a sign from the tyre gods.

Sue has the rotten luck to be driving, and we turn off the beach onto one of the few inland tracks... all sand with the occasional rock and tree root here up north.

The going is slow, the track winding with plenty of sand at times. After seeing no-one for 24hrs, we are suddenly side stepping 6-vehicles in quick succession from the opposite direction.

To top off the difficulties, there's a hissing sound from outside on the rear driver's side - a flat tyre - and we are powering up a sandy incline.

Pulling over as best we can, the track's a little wider here, and a slash in the tyre side wall. We unbolt the Hi-Lift jack for its second outing. The sand is deepest just here, so it's a bit tricky, and it's nice that several passing trucks offer assistance... always a comforting thought when in the middle of 'nowhere'.

So, it seems after our 2nd flat, 50,000 kms and a fair bit of 4WD wear and tear, it's time to update our tyres while on the road. Mmmm... stuff can be tricky when travelling.

So we go with 4-brand new, the existing spares to be discarded and replaced with the 2-best of those currently on the truck... all ordered online while here in Bundaberg, with the balancing, fitting and alignment sorted for up ahead, at Toyota in Gladstone

Thank goodness for the travel gods in this case... and the internet.

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Lady Elliot and the magic mantas

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Lady Elliot and the magic mantas

A line of horizontal cloud sits low to the west, over a blue strip of pale sky sandwiched above a wine dark sea. A waning orange sun is sinking and 2-yachts bob just offshore, their masts bouncing to and fro.

We are here for 3-days on this tiny island, another of Australia's 19-World Heritage listings, having left the truck at Bundaberg Aerodrome and flown for 45min to this most southerly tip of The Great Barrier Reef.

Distant surf roars away to the east - the far side of the island - the early evening air here awash with the clatter of white-capped noddies tussling for evening roosts on wispy branches of bulloak and within jungle clumps of octopus bush, pandanus and pisonia. Waves burst like champagne bubbles at our wet sandaled feet, on banks of pure coral sand as white as snow, the smell of rain sweet on black clouds overhead.

Later we circumnavigate this tiny but lush tropical island on foot and in the dark, hoping to glimpse the last of this seasons turtle hatchlings and their newborn dash for the water... on an island once denuded of all topsoil, including almost every stick of vegetation in the destructive quest for fertilizer left by generations of seabirds, that like the turtles, return to breed here year after year.

Our days are spent snorkeling with turtles, sharks, eagle rays... and a myriad of fish. Out by Lighthouse Bommie the water is clear, 15m deep and warm at 23degC. We can't believe our luck and are treated to quite a show: giant dancing manta rays, the gentle giants with black, bat-like wings 3m across, and weighing in at 1-tonne each. They wheel and turn, roll, rise and fall - magic worthy of the Bolshoi Ballet.

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Calling on Carnarvon Gorge

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Calling on Carnarvon Gorge

Heading inland from Hervey Bay is a 500km detour from our anticipated coastal route north... and a big day's drive in most people's book. But we share the driving - and it is a World Heritage area after all - so what the hell.

We arrive at the visitor centre in fading light, to find camping only allowed at specific times of year... and with no camping just now. So we double back to just outside the National Park boundary. 

We've happened across 'Sandstone Park', a sprawling cattle station dream of the owners, blessed with a high double ridge above the gorge itself... at the moment blanketed in drizzly black.

In the daylight the weather is grey and cloudy, with clearing rain. But the day ahead reveals some of the gorge's secrets, with a walk over stepping stone creek crossings  to a natural amphitheater reached via several flights of vertical steps, and a long chasm open to the sky but just one person wide. A natural overhang is a gallery of indigenous painting on a vast, soaring sandstone wall, making the onlooker feeling minuscule and irrelevant. Impossibly rock-wrought ponds and waterfalls, and secluded moss gardens garnered with a dose of Dreamtime magic.

The evening brings a special bonus, gold-drenched sandstone escarpments, a roaring campfire and the smell of woodsmoke under endless stars.

On the second morning we are blessed with bewitching views of the same timeless escarpments - this time white - among broken wisps of drifting mist... calls of currawongs and cockatoos, and a visit from a lone bovine visitor looking bored with it all.

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