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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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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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Dusting off the sand - Brisbane, then Toowoomba

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Dusting off the sand - Brisbane, then Toowoomba

We are in Brisbane for 2-nights... with the luxury of a hot shower, free WiFi that really works, and cocktails at the iconic Storey Bridge Hotel beneath the equally iconic Brisbane bridge of the same name.

There are some tweaks to the truck needed - the engine malfunction light having ominously appeared... again... a repeat offender from months ago, and something we really need to finally nail. Toyota now tell us the problem lay with after-factory-fitted cruise control and simply disconnect the culprit. So it seems we are temporarily without a cruise control. Mmmm... the saga continues... and we shall try another tack on that one. Oh, and there is also the matter of a smallish melanoma to be removed.

So here we are - on our last balmy Brisbane night - the above dealt with... for the moment, and we ponder our next move. But let's be brutally honest here... we do seem to have trouble travelling in straight lines, and have just spotted another distraction in a Brisbane magazine. It seems there's impressive street art in the Queensland city of Toowoomba, Australia's 2nd biggest inland city after Canberra. 

Yes, we are still headed up the coast to Townsville and beyond... but... in the meantime we move on once again, to enjoy the optimism of Toowoomba - a forward-thinking city with big plans - great Turkish food and some stunning street art. 

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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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Where to next?

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Where to next?

It's great to catch up with friends, but after 5-days BYRON BAY BLUESFEST is over... so it's back to the road for us. OK, so we often don't know where we are headed... not 'exactly' anyway. As always, our methodology is simple though, in this instance our 'plan' saying 'north'. And it is true our default setting is to follow the coast. For this leg it's Byron to Townsville, about a 15hrs drive if we were to head straight there.

But to beat the Top End Wet, we've allowed up to a month... so we are in no hurry. And on our last day in Byron, a friend asks if we'll be visiting Tenterfield and surrounds in Queensland. It's "beautiful country out there, and well worth a visit".

We look over our maps, then at each other. It's a minor diversion - only 250km to the west, and there is another wine district as it happens. So we change our 'plan' and head inland for now... just because we can.

Once on the road again, we check out 'WIKICAMPS' as per normal, finding a 'rest area' with 4-stars. After the festival, we are keen to keep today's journey short, and this place fills the bill - a rolling grassed site called 'Crooked Creek Rest Area'. It costs nothing to camp, allows campfires, has covered picnic tables and a toilet... all surrounded by glorious bush.

For dinner we share a Kerala coconut curry with salmon, a cask shiraz, a raging red campfire to warm the legs, the last calls of kookaburras and currawongs, then a lullaby of crickets, frogs and a gurgling creek. From our cosy bed in the top of the truck we listen to the intermittent rush of a passing breeze laden with damp bush smells and a hint of woodsmoke.

In the morning it's the last of Byron's best hot cross buns, toasted on last night's now flaming embers, surrounded by tiny wrens that dance and tweet at our feet... and we discuss nomadic life  with our only overnight neighbour.

Brisbane Bill wears sandals with socks, has a grey beard, blue eyes, and enjoys a natter. He and his wife are headed "whichever way the wind blows".

It seems there's another great camping spot not far from here -'Tooloom Falls' - also a free NSW State forest site as it happens. We look it up on Wikicamps - '50km NE from you' says my mobile phone app.

*****

A word about WIKICAMPS - an invaluable app for travellers and nomads of all ilks... dependent on public input and loaded with different camping sites, rest areas and points of interest throughout the country - with photos, lists of facilities, candid comments and prices of each.

Filters enable searching a current location, favourites or selected areas. New sites, comments and photos can all be added.

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Ten thousand K and counting

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Ten thousand K and counting

So here we are,finally approaching Byron Bay with our 2nd leg almost complete and our truck trip meter already passed the 10,000km milestone. Yeah, it's been tough at times... as can be seen by the frugal Mudgee tasting plate in the picture above... but alas, we struggle on.

But now, it's time to reflect on some journey discoveries, previously unknown and in order of appearance...

PENNINGTON BAY, Kangaroo Island, South Australia - we arrive at Kangaroo Island after almost missing our ferry, and when alighting on the island, we immediately head south to be greeted by over 30 dolphins surfing turquoise waves - us the only human audience.

WESTERN RIVER COVE, Kangaroo Island, South Australia - after 20km on a scenic, rolling and winding dirt road, we arrive at our own secluded cove, ragged rocky outcrops and a beautiful golden beach.

MCLAREN VALE, Adelaide, South Australia - our favourite winery being CORIOLE.

WOMAD, Adelaide, South Australia - A last minute stopover, "The World's Festival", a wonderfully eclectic annual get-together of music, food and friendly people.

TANUNDA, Barossa Valley, South Australia - our favourite winery being ROCKFORD.

The quiet and the isolation of the Outback - the red dirt and dust, the open endless skies, failed dreams and ancient dreamings, town names replaced with stations, out-stations and homesteads... opening and closing gates... lost and found in SOUTH AUSTRALIA and NEW SOUTH WALES.

MUTAWINTJE, New South Wales - A wild and isolated National Park north of Broken Hill, with an impressive collection of Aboriginal cave art. We rise early, another 40degC day predicted, and set out on a 5hr hike through the wilds of the gorge, followed by the luxury of a hot shower, a Goan curry and a  cheeky cask rose. 

MENINDEE LAKES, New South Wales - to see the lakes full of water, a chance encounter with a fire engine red mirror image of our own Troopy truck... oh, and a special evening birthday dinner.

BOURKE WHARF, New South Wales - After days of 50degC, the town has cooled off to 40degC. We walk out on the old wharf, currently hanging high above the Darling River, to be greeted by hundreds of corellas screeching, wheeling this way and that.

BREWARRINA, New South Wales - Seeing Aboriginal fish traps made of stone - over 40,000yrs old - thought to be the oldest man-made structures on the planet. And a stunningly beautiful campsite at BEDS ON THE BARWON, with ancient river redgums, a plethora of birdlife and iconic rustic amenities, right on the banks of the Barwon River at the very start of the mighty Darling River system.

MUDGEE, New South Wales - Over 40 friendly cellar doors and great wines at around 800m elevation and surrounded by hills, a magnificent tasting plate at LOWE, our favourite local winery.  Gorgeous bush camping among the rolling pastures of nearby Havila, OLD BARA HOMESTEAD.

HILL END, New South Wales - In the past a major gold town... now a nostalgic memory. Crooked fences and walls - all romantically set among rolling hills and grazing kangaroos, all surrounded by wild bush, rocky terrain and daunting 4WD tracks. And one of the best inter-reactive museums we've seen anywhere - HILL END HERITAGE CENTRE..

UPPER COLO, New South Wales - On arrival in darkness, through sheets of rain, via a narrow winding track surrounded by bush, we set up camp and dine in drizzle. In the morning we wake to wet bush smells, the chuckle of opposing kookaburra clans, and crowds of black cockatoos in clear blue skies... and a ramble on an unexpected sandy beach. All this, on 'NSW's most pristine river'.

WOLLOMBI TAVERN, New South Wales - a wonderfully rustic tavern, with well-worn wooden floorboards, hand-wrought furniture and riverfront camping out back.

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Lost on Root Hog Road

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Lost on Root Hog Road

Well... maybe we're not lost... not technically anyway. We are in New South Wales. We know it's a mere 20km from the old ghost town of Ophir to Hill End - as the crow flies - Ophir once a thriving frontier town and the site of Australia's first 'payable' gold strike. We leave at noon, after a 2hr bush hike among the long-abandoned diggings and shafts.

In the beginning we take the tamely-named Freemantle Rd. It's dirt, but in good enough nick. And the hard copy map shows a continuing track... the trouble being we are now facing a 'No through road' sign, and our iPad shows the road stopping at Macquarie river. 

Eventually we come to a fork in the road, and stop.  One leg heads in the general direction of the river.

We check our ipad again, and the truck GPS - the GPS with a river crossing.

But yes, this fork does 'head' for the river. But what happens when we get there remains a mystery.

A ute comes from the opposite direction - a wet stock dog in the back.

I wind down the window once the dust settles, the cheery driver "born and bred in these parts".

Will we be able to get across the river? The local scratches his chin and looks over our truck. His dog barks and wags his tail.

"Yeah... dog's been for a swim just now, and you'll make it in that. Track's a bit rough, rocky in bits... and the farmer doesn't like shooters, so sometimes shuts the gate."

A trip we expected to take maybe an hour, takes more like 3-1/2

Hindsight is a great thing, but there's definitely something ominous about a fork in the road, when the way forward is a crooked post with a sign that says 'Root Hog Road.'

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Postcard from Broken Hill - What's in a name?

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Postcard from Broken Hill - What's in a name?

Broken Hill seems a long way from anything, but is certainly entrenched in Australian folklore, being the 'BH' component of 'The Big Australian' BHP Billiton , and becoming the first city in Australia to be included on the National Heritage List - the 'broken hill' that gave the town its name initially being a number of hills that appeared to have a break in them. Alas, all have now been mined away.

And there's no shortage of culture here, with at least 8-galleries showcasing the work of artists including the iconic Pro Hart and Jack Absolam. Chips Rafferty and June Bronhill also came from here.

Today the air is dense and hot at 37degC, but it's hard to warm to a place where over 700 souls have been lost in mining accidents - the youngest killed at age 14 - and most streets are named after rocks and minerals.

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