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queensland

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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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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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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Postcard from Moreton Island - beaches and birdsong

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Postcard from Moreton Island - beaches and birdsong

From the Moreton Bay ferry, there's a one-way track east across the island, daunting sand hills at times... then narrow and winding, powder-soft, bumpy or deeply rutted. How one bloke tows a trailer is a mystery, and it's a welcome thought that we'll meet nothing from the opposite direction on this leg. 

On our first day an old timer warns that some get bored out here. "There are no possums mate, no kangaroos or koalas either. Never have been." He tells us tales of "blackfellas befriending local dolphins" to help with the herding of fish, and living mostly off seafood. "And there are middens in track cuttings mate, that go back thousands of years."

On the east coast our truck nestles among ocean coastal dunes with sublime sunsets on a lagoon of a lake just a short walk inland - our camp with the constant roar of surf and the calls of birds that flit and roost in rolling surrounds of casuarina and  banksia bush.

Our daily ritual starts with sunrise, a swim in the lake, the fresh water chilly, the air balmy but still. Next is breakfast: Innisfail red papaya, muscatels, banana and pot-set yogurt, the smell and taste of fresh-brewed coffee - hot and black - the last of a treasured gift from Costa Rica.

Down by the surf the waves pound even louder. A pair of Brahminy Kites are white and russet red, flight feathers extended like fingers. They drop and soar on unseen thermals, and a stiff Pacific breeze laden with the smell of salt - where a single morning walk can last forever on a beach of a highway that's mostly empty, awash, shiny and flat under a morning sun.

From the beach we gaze south to the profile of Mt Tempest - the tallest vegetated sand dune in the southern hemisphere.... then for the length of the coast until shrouded in sea mist, the weekend abode of long rods and wishfull ocean fisherfolk. Another sandy track leads across the bottom of the island back to the west coast and the sheltered waters of Moreton Bay, with Shark Point home to dugongs and giant turtles.

We turn north to where a distant lighthouse sits afloat a faded promontory in early morning light - an Antipodean dreaming... or maybe-memories of a Mediaeval Mont Saint Michel.

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Another island home

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Another island home

The island is an odd shape - wide at the northern end, thinning down south - but at about 35km long it's the 3rd biggest sand island in the world. We've been lucky to have previously spent time on Fraser Island - the 1st largest - but are always on the lookout for something different.

The first we heard of Moreton  Island was some weeks back in NSW, where we were approached by the owners of a camper trailer close by - John and Karen. They asked about our go-anywhere truck.

John is a butcher by trade. They've left their "now older kids at home to fend for themselves" and look for work here and there. Karen smiled. "Yeah, the money comes in handy, but life's not all about the money, is it?". There was butchering work to be had, and even an offer to manage a hotel for a couple of weeks... but I digress.

John had the words 'Moreton Island - escape the fake' emblazoned across the chest of his black tee shirt. "It's like Fraser," he said, "but quieter."

So here we are, after waking at 3:45am to catch the only ferry with any space - the 5am from Brisbane.

On the ferry we lower our front tyre pressures to 15psi, the back to 20... gulp hot coffee upstairs and ponder the thought of our first 'serious' sand driving since Namibia over 2yrs ago.

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