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Postcard from Cobourg

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Postcard from Cobourg

From Kakadu and the  East 'Alligator' River it's a 4hr drive to Cobourg Peninsula's 'Caiman' Creek, although it's anyone's guess what those two reptiles have to do with Australia's Northern Territory... the drive beginning with an East Alligator crossing where the causeway is partially blocked with waiting saltwater crocs  - not alligators - the 2m to 4m beasties ignoring our truck as they wait for tidal change and the unsuspecting fish that follow.

At Caiman Creek we are about 550km east and slightly north of Darwin, getting here via a badly corrugated road, lined with bush and narrow at times.

The region is part of West Arnhem Land, returned to Aboriginal ownership in 1981, having first arrived around 40,000yrs ago and more recently seeing outsiders come and go... Indonesian sailor-traders, buffalo and croc hunters, pearlers, missionaries, tourists and fisherfolk of all denominations.

And it is just south of here that was thought a good place for a European settlement in the 1830s, even without a convenient supply of fresh water, an initial survey conducted at the end of the wet season and the British colonials being preoccupied with a perceived threat of Dutch and French expansion in the region.

A 43m long jetty was built, but wrecked by a cyclone the following year. A prefabricated building intended as 'Government House' was lifted off its stone pillar foundations and dumped 3m away.

Within 6yrs the settlement was struggling, with half the garrison - initially from Tasmania - crowded into the small hospital suffering from malaria... along with scurvy, influenza, dysentery and diarrhea.

And it is the ruins of 'Victoria' we are here to see, a 6hr round trip by boat only, including a 4km hike round the site.

Our guide is Travis, initially from South Australia, maybe 40, with a tangle of dark wind-tussled hair tied in a ponytail, a long-sleeved fishing shirt, football shorts and bare feet. Travis is well read, has worked "in mental health with Central Australian indigenous communities", and has been a tour guide in the Kimberley, Kakadu and Tasmania. These days he is based here, "married with family and a mortgage."

The first thing we see is a 20m high cliff - red and white - with what's left of the jetty below. Travis noses the boat into the shallows and on to the white sandy beach. He grabs a 1-ltr bottle of water... and an epirb - an emergency locating device. "The most important thing we have on board I reckon." He smiles. "Pretty damn isolated out here."

We look around, what is left being stone, the ruins including a powder magazine still intact, and what is left of the married quarters with Cornish-style round stone chimneys. There are also the ruins of 2-Quartermaster's stores, a blacksmith's, limestone kiln, hospital, kitchen and bake house.

The cemetery is a quiet, forlorn place, dominated by a handful of graves including that of an Italian priest who chose to live with the local Aborigines instead of within the settlement, and over on the edge of the jungle a tall stone spire dedicated to the wife of the longest-serving officer - Lieutenant Lambrick  - his 40yo Emma the much-loved matriarch of the settlement who died during childbirth in October 1846. 

Travis is quiet for moment. "Yeah, that was tragic really. But it seems the settlement limped along for another 3yrs, 'till the sickness and death of both the Assistant and Chief Surgeon... the last deaths recorded here."  

Travis shrugs. "Mmmm... odd that one... both the Assistant and Chief dying in the same year I mean."

The late morning glare is intense, and Travis' eyes narrow. "The books tell us they failed here due to ambitious trade hopes not eventuating." I must look doubtful considering the population never exceeded 70 souls. Travis smiled. "Well yeah, I know... they'd hoped that Victoria Settlement could be another Singapore... way out here. But supplies, were unreliable and infrequent, storing stuff in this climate difficult... I mean half the flour weight was weevils! And there was of course the disease, and the wild but mostly oppressive weather."

"They did have a garden I suppose, but the soil is not so good up here, and anything harvested was mostly eaten by rats."

"And malaria was the major killer here, spread by mosquitoes of course... but they never got what it was about." Travis shook his head. "The Aboriginal mobs knew it was mosquitoes that carry malaria. They took preventative steps, like using smoke, and smearing clay on their skin. But the Brits thought malaria was caused by bad air."

Travis has one child, with another baby on the way. He frowns, then gazes out to sea. "No kids made it through here, and I reckon the real reason the place failed was that it died of a broken heart, with the death of Emma Lambrick... and her baby, Emma having already lost her only son the previous year.

"I often wonder what happened to Emma's husband - Lieutenant Lambrick - him being second in charge and the longest serving officer here at Victoria Settlement until finally abandoned in 1849... him losing everything after being stuck here for 11yrs."

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A walk on a Macassan beach

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A walk on a Macassan beach

We are in East Arnhem Land, the beach windswept, with white sand and red rock shelves, the sun burning, the smell of baked earth and newly-burned grass, the early September temperature around 37degC.

The walk is a loop, the site recently subject to a regular indigenous 'cool burn to keep down the understorey and to better see these pictures that lay on the ground - outlines built of small red rocks in the 1890s by Aboriginal Yolngu elders

And this is their story that could have been lost to future generations, the story of a way of life that existed for hundreds of years and a local connection with the outside world... the Indonesian collection and trading of sea cucumber - or 'trepang' - along with the turtle and pearl shell, all in turn to be traded to the far-off Chinese.

We walk in a clockwise direction, observing the Yolgnu artist's work, an important historical record of visitors to this shore called 'Macassans' - from the Indonesian island of Makassar - pictures of their boats and stone houses, of their fireplaces for boiling the trepang.

The Macassan sailors came each December with the monsoon winds - sailing their tri-mast vessels - the 1600km journey taking 2wks. They would set up camp at their stone houses by tamarind trees planted on previous visits as location markers, returning home with the corresponding southeast trade winds.

They did business with local clans and in exchange for Yolngu labour - and the use of their land - the Macassans traded canoes, metal knives, axes, spears and fish hooks, along with glass and tobacco. Several Yolngu visited Indonesia, returning to East Arnhem the following year.

We follow the marked walking track from the stone outline of a Macassan sailing vessel to that of a Macassan stone house, and wonder at the march of progress... the last Macassan visit in 1907, 'the last' due to an Australian edict to introduce licenses and taxes payable in Darwin before any trade - the direction of the winds making sailing to Darwin impossible.

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6-months on the road

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6-months on the road

For this milestone we are in Northern Territory on the Gove Peninsula, East Arnhem Land.... and we are wandering the airy corridors of the YIRRKALA ART CENTRE - an expansive display of Indigenous Arnhem Aboriginal art.

It's been 6mths now, since leaving the cooler climes of Bayside Melbourne... and every now and then something special has come our way...  like a special moment or thing, an event, a place or person. This time it's all about a priceless national treasure we have never heard of.

To get to Yirrkala it's been a drive on the reddest of roads,  billowing dust the norm, corrugations common and the occasional rut  - '24hrs from Katherine' the information brochure says, although 'only' 700km as our truck flies.

We overnight at Mainoru Roadhouse, our recommended stop in accordance with our over-the-counter, no-cost, 10-day permit from the Northern Land Council office in the Katherine main street.

On our arrival at Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula, we seek out the 'Dhimurru Corporation' office for camping permits on Aboriginal land, then our NT liquor permit to buy take-away alcohol.

The seaside town of Yirrkala is 20km to the south, the scent of frangipani on a breeze, the sun hot, the Gulf of Carpentaria a glittering turquoise blue and the sand a dazzling white.

The gallery is adjacent an Aussie Rules oval of green grass, a stadium/shed and store. Impressive murals cover outside walls... the heros of Aboriginal rights going back to the 1960s. The gallery entry is plain and unadorned, the glass door dark and dusty under a wide, shady verandah. 

Once inside is another story... a treasure-trove of handmade indigenous art typical of this isolated region. There are forests of traditional wooden Yidaki - didgeridoo - with the most intricate traditional designs, wall hangings and paintings. Shelves are stacked full of books, CDs and carvings. Simple racks are laden with woven bags and a photographer snaps special pieces in a cluttered room off to the side.

Justin is lean, has a greying mane of straight hair and has been here since the 90s. He rises from behind his computer screen, stands tall in a plain white tee-shirt and blue jeans. There is something we must see, he says.

Out back is a specially-built darkened room with timber steps down to a small sunken cellar of sorts - atmospheric with soft lighting designed to highlight 2-vertical panels. Both are intricate in their design - rustic browns and blacks - with a low bench seat directly across from, and in front of the panels. There is a lot for the visitor to take in. 

The panels are about 1m wide by 3m high and hang side by side. And they tell an Aboriginal creation story, wonderfully presented in detail by the Indigenous artists, but evidently with no Christian influence, coersion or direction.

Justin tells a story that begins "before my time", the panels created by Yolnu elders and gifted to the newly opened Methodist church in 1963, intended for permanent display as a screen behind the communion table. Justin waves one hand towards the front door. "You would have seen the church over the road."

The story continues... 10yrs after the panels are installed - around 1983 -  a new missionary arrives at the church, saying the panels are inappropriate for a church, and are most certainly "heathen" works. Both panels are stripped from inside the church against the wishes of the Parish Committee.

The panels lie neglected and forlorn for 4yrs - but are never completely forgotten - propped against an outside wall exposed to the ways of mud wasps and weather, before being rescued by a coalition of Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists, then cleaned by the staff of the Australian University.

Justin pauses for effect and to gather his thoughts while peering over the top of thin-rimmed glasses. "And that was the beginning of a movement here in Arnhem Land... you might say, the very beginning of the entire Australian Indigenous Land Rights movement."

Down in the cellar my eyes are drawn to the panel on the right, with a small figure top and centre - a diminutive, painted bird - this little bird being the ancestral link between the spirit and the temporal worlds, flanked by helpers on his immediate right and left... the cicada and the possum. Alas, an ancient story considered inappropriate to the doctrines taught in a civilized house of worship. 

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Postcard from Seven Emu

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Postcard from Seven Emu

From Hells Gate we drive 4hrs west across the Northern Territory border via the Savannah Way, part of Australia's National Highway One, although here mostly a red dirt and dust road of sand holes, bulldust and corrugations. The turnoff is a 25km track to 'SEVEN EMU',  a sprawling Gulf station of 1665 square miles right on the Robinson River... and a unique partnership with the AUSTRALIAN WILDLIFE CONSERVANCY.

OUR CAMP is perched on 30m red cliffs high above the Robinson, a favoured haunt of saltwater crocodiles, two 4m beauties making an appearance in the first hour. Later we gaze down on metre long queenfish that cruise towards the river mouth bounded by distant dunes on a wild Gulf coast.

For most of the day the wind moans through white cyprus pines and the afternoon sun throws a shimmering silver sheen over tussled river ripples. At night we listen to the ratchet drone of crickets, the splash of feeding fish, the cries of night birds and the crackle of the campfire - not a skerrick of wind now, and a never-ending magic carpet of stars. The air is cool after another 35degC winter day, the fire's smokey smell loaded with the perfume of dust and dry wood.

The old stockmen facilities are rustic... a flat iron roof on round wooden posts, a long drop toilet with sunset river views, and a 44gal rusted drum 'donkey' fire-fed heater for luxurious hot showers.

The owner of Seven Emu is Frank, a Gulf country Garawa man in his early 60s, with a knowing black face,  the wispy line of a mustache and white hair under a tussled black hat with wide Gulf brim. The blue shirt is of a Wrangler Western check, the worn jeans of faded denim, the slip-on shoes tarnished and dusty.

And Frank's a man who doesn't seem to miss anything, has a mischievous streak, his sharp eyes brown, narrowing now and then as if sizing up his audience. I ask about his dad, who bought this place, and Frank screws up his eyes, thoughtful as he remembers his father. "You know, the best advice he gave me was to always talk to the boss when doin' business... keep low and stay out of trouble."

I'm also interested in Ludwig Leichhardt, the famed German botanist/explorer who came this way in the 1840s, naming 'Seven Emu' after a successful hunt, before disappearing without a trace on the return journey. Frank nods. "Yeah... lot's come here interested in that bloke. Good man I reckon. Never shot a blackfella, and asked them about the animals, plants, and the lay of the land."

We take a rough, winding track in Frank's battle-worn Landcruiser ute, out to the old place... across sandy ruts, bumps and dried-out crossings - the homestead paddock deserted now due to a lack of reliable water.

Frank parks his truck and we make our escape from the searing midday sun... to a grand stand of mangoes reminiscent of a giant cathedral, tall thick columns of trunks, their canopies melding as one. Their shady shroud hangs cool and restful over what's left here - some tumbled-down shed walls, some crooked asbestos sheeting and the overgrown remains of his mum's vegetable garden.

Frank talks fondly of his mother, caring for the family and that vegie garden, but dying at only 61yo... and he points to one particular tree. "See that tree? I was born under that one." He tells a story of his dad leaving home, riding over 500km east to the Queensland frontier Gulf town of Normanton, with a young Frank in tow and his mum left home with a brand new baby. "Yeah, long way that trip, me just a baby." He smiled. "To give me mum a rest dad said. And with me just startin' to walk, reckon he should have got father of the year!"

Our host points to a depleted pond surrounded by scrub just below the paddock and we amble down to the water's edge. It's been a good wet season he says. Frank stoops down to pick up a handful of wet sand, holding it up and gazing intently at the palm of his hand. "In the old days, there were bugs and bait in this sand." Frank frowns. "But nothin' happenin' now." He falls quiet for a moment as a gust of wind rustles the mango leaves. He tugs at the brim of his hat with one hand, tossing the sand over the water with the other. "And, when the sand hit the surface the fish would always be comin' to the top back then... to see what was happenin'. These days, nothin' much goin' on there either."

I look at the pond, Sue and I both thinking the same thing - there are tadpoles in the water after all, so is that not a good thing? But Frank has been down this road with tourists before. "Cane toads," he says with a hint of contempt, then moves on to another story - when his brother and him encountered a giant crocodile. "He was a big one that saltie, maybe 6m or so... an old one for sure." His eyes follow along the sand bank where we stand. "We was camped on a bank, my brother and me, and this big fella rushed up with his mouth open. Lots of teeth." There's a smile from Frank, then a nervous cough. "Scared the hell out of us. Right between us he went, then just keeled over, dead. We found 20-toads in his belly."

We look at each other, then at Frank, more than a little depressed.

Frank is sad at what has happened to this country, the introduction of pests that degrade the land - from assorted weeds to South American cane toads, feral cats and camels - after 65,000 years the sudden neglect to properly care for the land.

But Frank is grateful for his good luck too, the Seven Emu pastoral lease purchased in 1953 by his visionary father, an Aboriginal, self-made, self-educated man with no entitlement to vote back then, and Indigenous Australians not granted full citizenship rights until 1968.

By all accounts FRANK'S FATHER was an exceptionally hard worker, a horse trader and cattle drover with a plan... striking it lucky by winning some money "on the horses", raising 11-kids and insisting they be formally educated... Seven Emu being the only pastoral land lease ever purchased by an Australian Aboriginal.

Frank smiles from the corner of his mouth, and his brown eyes sparkle. "You know what?" He leaves me no time to answer. "My old dad lived till his 90s, and always said that I needed to take care of country... that city fellas like you would arrive one day and pay me money to tell stories and show them around."

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Postcard from the Diamantina

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Postcard from the Diamantina

Diamantina is 400km north of Birdsville, the surrounding landscape more akin with the American Wild West... red rocky outcrops called  'jump-ups' in these parts - flat top, truncated, ancient mountain leftovers from some long-forgotten inland sea, and seemingly sown at random across these endless red plains with the scantest smattering of grey bush... until we reach 'Channel Country' that is, the tangled, snakelike, labyrinth of waterways rutted and wrangled by past torrential onslaughts, the larger trees with ripped, bare roots, the stark gibber plains with occasional sink holes.

So this is the mighty 'Diamantina' diaspora, the stuff of Outback verse, our truck rising and falling on a dusty roller coaster of a road. Wayward cattle stare languidly, the land a rutted moonscape of a floodplain, with washed up flotsam pushed high in the canopy of ancient stunted trees. Dry, scoured trenches flow wherever they wish.

Finally arriving at Hunter Gorge campsite, we meet National Parks Ranger Max tending the facilities and passing on upcoming weather details. "Yeah, some chance of rain... but less chance than yesterday. Changeable country this, that's for sure." Those dark eyebrows are raised. "In my first year we were all stuck out at the homestead for months." There's a sweep of that giant hand. "All you can see was flooded, for miles and miles." Max pauses, could be only in his 20s, in faded green Ranger garb, a mop of black hair under a wide-brimmed hat and the scant beginnings of a beard." He points down south, in the direction where we passed the old station homestead on the slightest rise... now the Parks office and accommodation, and sited on one of the few pieces of higher ground.

Our camp overlooks a flotilla of pelicans cruising the coffee-coloured Diamantina water, fishing as one, upstream then down... floating this way, then the other, beaks down trawling, beaks up again... and on they go until dark. Our neighbour too catches fish, 5-yellow bellied perch within hours of arriving, and graciously offers us one - a delicious gift we wrap in foil with garlic and lemon and cook on our fire, along with roasted slices of saffron-coloured sweet potato that melt in our mouths.

That night we listen to an ominous pitter patter of rain for most of the night, recalling the Ranger's earlier words, "Yeah, the isolation is kind of nice. But it can get tricky out here. You're a long way from anyone I reckon." Max's eyes had narrowed to stress how serious things can get. "Even with 10mm of rain the roads get impossible." 

At 6am it's still dark, still raining and time to get up. We've decided to run for it, leaving those still sleeping in vans and  camper trailers. We don't fear the river - not for now anyway - but we do fear the notorious red mud.

We breakfast on fruit and yogurt in silence, still dark, the wet drifts coming and going on a cool intermittent breeze, the smell of dust replaced by rain. Soles of our gumboots are layered in mud that's more  like glue, even though the ground is wet only on the surface, the sand still dry below.

We finish packing and rev up the truck with very first light, but there's no other sign of life. From our riverside campsite we slip and slide towards the gate, our truck tyre treads clogged with mud that was sand just yesterday... the truck in low range and 2nd gear. Olympic tobogganing on greasy mud comes to mind

Max had said that "If you get to Brighton Downs, then you'll make it out."  The window wipers settle into a rhythmic  clap, our slicked-up tyres slip and slide, our truck barely missing a gate post. We are 70km from Brighton Downs, but are at least now out the gate.

It takes us over 2hrs to reach Brighton Downs, where we take a deep breath and ponder the legendary amounts of water flowing through the Diamantina system in one 'normal' wet season, and the improbability of anyone driving out once the rain got really serious. "2.4 cubic km a year" Max had said with some authority. "more than the water in Sydney Harbour."

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In the shadow of Big Red

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In the shadow of Big Red

'THE BIG RED BASH' music gig is held each year at the beginning of July, 30km west of Birdsville in the shadow of Big Red, or Nappanerica as the first folk called it - the 30m high South West Queensland sand dune - on the edge of the Simpson Desert, the largest parallel sand dune desert in the world.

On the first day we arrive around midday with our newly-cracked windscreen and smashed driver's window, a legacy of flying blue metal catapulted up from oncoming caravans on a narrow sealed road. 

It's an enlightening hike to the stage in the afternoon, Missy Higgins on day one, some here for the iconic setting, others set to 'rock the Simpson'... a ragtag collection of intrepid travellers in assorted rigs and campers, caravans, trucks and buses, tents, swags, annexes and awnings.

Many seem content with listening at a distance, either staying at their camp or sitting within eye-shot in their comfy fold-up chairs, a large viewing screen set to the right of the stage... the entire scene dwarfed by an iconic western backdrop - the famed red dune rising abruptly behind.

Late in the day, there's a line of people on the dune ridge, the setting sun silhouettes standing kids and grown-ups, while exuberant shouting youngsters jump, tumble and slide in the sand, hurtling down towards the back of the stage and immediately scrambling back to the top, more interested in 'doing' the dune than any music or performer.

On day three we meet travelers from West and South Australia - Tom and Jen, Stewart and Ailsa - both couples with similar trucks and fitouts to ours... although a South African design we've only heard about.

That night we share stories round their campfire - tales of the road, South America, of teaching and assignments in small Territory schools, of indigenous kids... and of previous Simpson Desert crossings in rare 'good seasons' when this same desert was alive with rolling fields of wild flowers - their last trip "taking 9-days instead of the normal 5 due to the boundless photo opportunities"... and of finally reaching the top of Big Red, to gaze down on the flat sand pan where we now sit. But instead of the unrelenting sand, they see water as far as the eye can see.

The fire crackles, the slightest movement from us or passing foot traffic stirring up dust. We all gaze up at the stars, the clear black sky... just a myriad of stars that sparkle, the astral haze of the Milky Way the only cloud.

With The Bash over, we choose a late start, the early exit ques lengthy, the smell and clatter of diesel engines, the dust clouds thick, but us in no hurry to join the fleeing throng. The empty plain looks flat, unrelenting, dry and desolate, the sun already hot, Big Red brooding.

We look at each other and wonder at the almost mythical changes we've only heard about. There is red dust in our nostrils, dust on our clothes and our skin, on our feet and in the corners of our eyes. Heaven help anyone suffering from hay fever or asthma. Our tent and truck are full of red dust.

And we try to imagine just last year, 'The Bash' site flooded, and the annual event forced to the Birdsville showgrounds... and we ponder the possibility of clouds here, heavy grey skies, thunderstorms and spikes of lightning, this same place after days of torrential, unrelenting rain... our camp under a metre of water where our newest friends sailed kayaks... right here... in the shadow of Big Red.

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postcard from laura

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postcard from laura

Down from 'The Tip' we say goodbye to our top end `adventure-4WD' companions Wendy and Al, and it's on to Laura... not to be confused with nearby 'Old Laura' or 'New Laura'... and we are here for the 2017 bi-annual ABORIGINAL DANCE FESTIVAL.

Laura is an outback town with a population of 80 - a pub with Chinese backpacker staff that serves barramundi and beer, with space for campers out back. There's a post office doubling as a general store, a caravan park and tourist information centre.

But it's just to the south of here that things get special... with the world-famous Aboriginal QUINKAN ROCK ART going back thousands of years, including striking depictions of emus, kangaroos, human figures and the ever-present spirit world. And further south there is a camping ground surrounded by a natural rock amphitheatre where the dance festival is held.

And this year's festival has special significance for us, being just back from 'The Tip', and now with some knowledge of the participating Cape York Aboriginal communities that include Mapoon, Bamaga and Lockhart River... isolated Australian Cape communities of which we were previously unaware.

Our favourites are the Lockhart mob, having visited the area on our way north to the tip of Cape York, and having been lucky to later meet 2-teachers considering leaving their current positions at a Brisbane school to embark on "more challenging, more rewarding roles"... at Lockhart River as it happens.

We are camped nextdoor at Elliot Falls when we first meet on the Old Telegraph Track, and after a swim to wash off the dust are kindly invited around to share their fire.

Steve is aware of the gravity of their decision, but they are both "looking for a change after almost 30 years in the system". He pauses to collect the right words, looks across at his partner Karen and adds. "We really would like to make a difference, and we think we can do that." He pokes at the fire. "I'm told the big thing is to get the kids to school in the first place, and then to create opportunities for them that make coming to school a more appealing option than not coming". He then adds " We hope to go there and be good role models for the kids." Steve looks pensive, and Karen nods agreement. We are impressed. Steve is a big guy, looks fit, and both Steve and Karen are eloquent and impassioned. We are sure they'll be a formidable combination, a great help to the Lockhart community and the school principal whom they have both known since the late 80's where they met in Canberra.

At Laura the dance festival is in full swing, with the LOCKHART RIVER MOB currently going through their paces. And it's obvious they are the favourites in our part of the crowd, especially with a woman in a wide-brimmed hat. She stands behind us, her shouts enthusiastic, loud and encouraging... and very biased.

We are struck by the age mix of these Lockhart dancers - tiny kids of around 2yo, teenagers and older dancers too. One Elder wears glasses and has an intercom unit strapped to his belt. Another is a middle-aged woman with wide eyes, wild grey hair and very animated... all have the traditional paint, grass skirts and the totemic moves of their clan. And we are struck by the rhythms and chants, the gasps and cheers of the mixed crowd... the hypnotic click of clapsticks and boomerangs.

Postscript - 13 July 2017 - We receive a message today from Steve and Karen. Yes, the enthusiastic Lockhart supporter at the Laura festival was in fact the current Lockhart school principal Siobhan. And Steve and Karen have accepted the offer to live among the Lockhart River Aboriginal community to teach and mentor the kids.

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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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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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