Days 284 – 293 (March 12th – March 21st) Sydney to Melbourne, Kangeroo Island, Adelaide, Margaret River & Perth

Getting onboard again after our adventures in Queensland was a bit of a shock, given that the Queen Mary 2 is much bigger than the Odyssey, and we noticed a lot of differences between the 2 ships. However, this was to be our home for 42 days and there was little we could do about that. Sailing out of Sydney was less emotional than sailing in, back in December, but was equally dramatic and, of course, it underlined the fact we wouldn’t see Tali for several months.

Sailaway from Sydney

Cunard came with 2 major disadvantages when compared with Seaborne: the wifi service is hugely expensive and largely ineffective and all drinks, with the exception of those provided in the room, have to be paid for and so we had to plan for maintaining contact with family and spending as little as possible on alcohol. On our first evening we addressed another bugbear on our last trip, that our table in the Queen’s Grill was hidden away in the dark side of the room, away from the windows. As luck would have it the same maître d’ was there and as he had promised us back in May 2022 that a better table would be ours & Helen went to work to ensure he kept his promise…We sat down to dinner only a table’s width from a window, seated between an American couple who had sailed all the way from New York and a couple from Sydney who were doing the short hop to Perth.

Our first stop was Melbourne and we then moved on further west, north of Tasmania and through very calm seas, White-capped albatross and a half hour time change prior to arriving in South Australia and

Kangeroo Island, the 3rd largest island in Australia, where we’d booked a RIB tour along the coast. The sea was choppy and we were lucky to get on shore as the tenders used to transfer guests ashore, if the ship is unable to dock, are lifeboats and, being very buoyant, tend to move with the swell, making the experience quite exciting for us younger guests but perhaps too hazardous for the more elderly people on board. It was while waiting to board in the poor people’s dining room that I took this photo perhaps illustrating that Cunard at its best is still pretty impressive.

After a very bumpy ride over we were taken to our boat and our trip out to see dolphins and seals.

And then to a lookout over the harbour

Unlike Queensland, where the wet season is in the summer, in the south of Australia the reverse is true and the summer is the dry season, explaining why the island looks so parched. The last big bushfires were in 2019 and caused huge damage to infrastructure, farms and the extensive national parks on the island. Adelaide is on the mainland just across the water and the next day was spent there catching up on mundane matters prior to leaving on 2 sea days towards Busselton and Perth and more time zone changes totalling 2.5 hours over the weekend. On leaving the captain announced that he’d be deploying the stabilisers and the weather would be cold and windy, not the best way to experience days at sea, although it made for some good shots of Short-tailed shearwaters

Busselton (Busso) is a seaside town within easy reach of Perth and a frequent stop-off for cruise ships. It is famed for it’s very long pier at the end of which is an aquarium. The beaches are surrounded by shark nets as the annual “salmon” run (they’re not salmon) attracts dolphins and sharks. QM2 is a large ship and had to anchor a long way off-shore so requiring tenders to move people ashore and back. This process seems to be an achilles heel of the QM2 staff as for the 2nd time in a week we had to wait at least an hour to be crammed into a very uncomfortable lifeboat. Once ashore it was so hot we found sanctuary in a French bistro, bought a few essentials and scurried back to the ship. We were very lucky as soon after boarding the wind picked up and the service was suspended for an hour. That evening we were treated to a superb sunset as we left for Freemantle, the harbour of Perth.

Perth is home to Rosie, schoolfriend of Helen, and her husband Bob and they picked us up from Freemantle, firstly stopping off at Cottesloe where the beach is transformed into a gallery of sculptures

Followed by a stop at the botanical gardens which overlook the centre of Perth and which, fabulous views notwithstanding, are a beautifully constructed series of gardens

Before returning to their house for homemade lasagne and a few glasses of fizz for the ladies

Freemantle is a major port on the west coast of Australia and watching the container ships was a constant source of amazement

Returning to the ship, we made one last aussie call to Tali, before setting off on our circular route (i.e. the shortest distance between 2 points on a globe) to Mauritius, 7 sea days away.

Days 278 – 284 (March 6th – March 12th) South to Sydney

1385km from Rocky to Sydney and 5 days to do it. Should we take it easy and stay at 4 different places or should we cover the majority of the distance in 3 days and then have a 2 night break near Sydney? If the latter, do we stay on a vineyard (Andy’s preference) or by the sea (Helen’s preference)? Or do we really rack up the miles and extend our trip via the Blue Mountains (Andy’s other preference) or not (Helen’s preference)? Whatever our choices, the fastest route was across country, with few decent places to stop so options were limited. Stop 1 was at Miles, a Queensland town through which many road trains passed.

Our route to Miles took us through the town of Banana, named after a banana-coloured cow

Our second stop was in Warialda, a non-descript town best known, apparently, for the warm and welcoming residents. Finally, after stopping off in Tamworth, famed for it’s music festival

we stopped for 2 nights on the coast, at Terrigal, a lovely place just an hour or so drive from Sydney

Walking back from a restaurant one night we chanced upon a lovely moonshot called a Worm Moon even down under, indicating the 1st full moon in March which heralds spring in the northern hemisphere and autumn in the southern. Named due to the earth being warm enough for earthworms to start aerating the soil. Not a problem in Australia one would think!

Before arriving in Sydney to catch our boat back to blighty, hoping that on our return we’d be be able to watch Match of the Day with Gary…

Days 265 – 277 (Feb 21st – March 5th) Magnetic Island, Mackay and Rocky, the sequel….

We arrived early enough in Townsville to take the ferry over to Magnetic Island the same day although the weather was telling us it might not be the most sensible option. The flat-bottomed barge over was not ideal in the rough seas although the views of the encroaching storm were quite impressive

We found our motel in Arcadia Bay easily enough, the owner having left the keys out for us as we were arriving after 5pm. It turns out we were the only ones staying and the place looked like it had been abandoned as many of the rooms had their doors open. Our room overlooked the pool and the beach but the window frames were filthy, the tv remote didn’t have batteries and the bathroom floor was always wet. On the positive side we were right next to a pub and the bed was comfortable. The next day it was raining and despite our lack of enthusiasm we drove over to Horseshoe Bay, located at the northern end of the island, and then to Picnic Bay at the southern end of the island, and took some photos after which we returned to the motel to track down the owners before they could leave again. Picnic Bay is famous as the 1st day tripper destination of the mainland Aussies for a picnic in 1856 or thereabouts. The first family made their fortune by providing picnics, then later accommodation and transport while still exploring and making their way on this beautiful but rugged island.

They were very nice and provided some batteries and agreed to return a nights money as we’d decided to leave the next day, after the world famous toad racing which, quite fortuitously, took place weekly in the pub next to our hotel. This event is to raise funds for the lifeguard station in Arcadia Bay and is very well attended. The organisers turn up with a bucket of toads and it’s up to the skill and judgement of those watching to choose and invest in the most lively toad able to run in a straight line in order to win the AUS$120 prize money. Sadly, our AUS$30 investment failed to impress the purple-ribboned toad who’s probably still sitting in the centre circle now…

Magnetic Island is quite exceptional as being one of the few places where death adders thrive as they have an abundance of skinks to eat. They have never had to rely on the cane toad which is toxic to snakes and has decimated the species across a lot of the mainland. They are remarkable in they do not move very far but use their tail to impersonate an insect and then comes the deadly bite to unsuspecting skinks! Luckily we didn’t see one as to tread on one could live up to their name. Magnetic Island was disappointing in so much that it has a reputation for being a beautiful island but this depends very much on the weather being nice and things being open. We left the island, having decided to stay for a few days in Mackay, halfway to Rocky.

The drive from Townsville to Mackay was dominated by huge sugar plantations and enlivened only by the floppy giant mango, a sad reminder of how things used to be, in the town of Bowen

Mackay is a wealthy town, dominated by sugar, which has a reputation for having a number of art deco buildings on wide boulevards. We stopped there as it was approximately halfway to Rocky and had some decent places to stay and eat. Also, we were hoping to escape the rain further north. The ladies in the tourist office were as friendly as anywhere else and gave us a few things to do. These included a trip north of the river to look from the boat ramp at Dolphins Heads as, one of them claimed, her and her husband often saw crocs up the river. Apparently several large crocs have been removed from the area but smaller ones were around. Not on this particular day, sadly. We carried on to Lamberts Lookout on Slade Point from where the queues of ships waiting to collect consignments of coal wait to be called in and filled up.

The sign revealed a number of familiar names

Continuing down the coast we reached Lamberts Beach. Entering a public convenience there was movement in the toilet bowl, initially thought to be a toad, but which proved to be a snake, rolled up and looking very agitated. The lifeguard called in for a snake-catcher only to be told no-one was available until after the weekend so she was instructed to close the conveniences until then. In the meantime (bear with me ..) the husband of someone else who’d arrived as this was going on (and who kept snakes as a hobby) turned up and, equipped with a stick and a beer can, proceeded to search the 3 cubicles, only to find nothing. We didn’t wait around long enough to see what happened next but it certainly spiced up the afternoon. Retracing our steps we stopped at the Kommo Toera Trail, a stunning area of wetland habitat

The road from Mackay to Rocky goes through a featureless landscape and, given the high death toll on Australian roads the authorities have tried to make drivers aware of the dangers of driving whilst tired

Firstly, there are a variety of signs which suggest taking a break

Secondly, there are occasionally quiz questions

And then there’s the play on commonly asked questions whilst driving with children

Rockhampton is a sprawling town, although the centre is focussed on the Fitzroy river, and gives the impression of being a rough place with wide boulevards and unattractive buildings. Yet, dig a bit deeper and the place has some redeeming features with a fantastic botanical garden and free zoo, the river itself which is re-inventing itself as a barramundi fishing destination and the historical centre, which has some fine old buildings. We stayed in an apartment on the 11th floor overlooking the town and facing west so useful for capturing the occasional dramatic sunset.

At the base of our tower were a few restaurants with an almost Brisbane-like feel to them

One evening we took a sunset cruise on the river which confirmed in Australia one is never far from the countryside as within minutes we could have been anywhere

The next day, we walked out from our place along the river on a heritage walk which has a number of the original buildings from when Rocky was first established as a gold town (one of the biggest gold mines in Australia is just down the road at Mount Morgan). Copper mining and beef production also contributed to the wealth of the town.

Tali and Helen went shooting at the local clay club and we had a great time. Really friendly people, bar bbq, snacks and so cheap compared to England. On the way there we saw numerous sporting facilities from Olympic size swimming pools, tennis courts, football, soccer and rugby pitches. No excuses for not getting out (except the heat).

Followed by bugs at Tali’s place

And a sunny return to Mount Archer, with views over the city and neighbouring countryside

Finally, we cooked a roast at our place featuring Tali’s speciality

Time to leave. Sad not to see Tali for so long but happy that she’s doing so well and enjoying the Australian lifestyle.

Days 252 – 265 (Feb 8th – 21st) Cooktown, Port Douglas, Daintree, Cape Tribulation, Palm Cove, Cairns and Kuranda

On our trip across the Pacific, James Cook was a frequent feature of the places we visited, and the same was true of the east coast of Australia so it seemed fitting to end our northerly progression at the point where he too stopped and eventually returned to England. This was Cooktown, where Cook had to stop in order to fix the gaping hole in the hull of his ship, the Endeavour, caused by colliding with the Great Barrier Reef. On our way to Cooktown we passed a few high points giving views over the iconic Daintree National Park…

..and as we approached Cooktown, we drove through the mysterious Black Mountain National Park, a bizarre mountain composed of granite boulders, which had significance to the local tribes and which has also been associated with plane crashes, people getting lost and never being found and even the presence of the extinct Tasmanian tiger

The account of Cook’s stay here is well documented at the Cooktown museum which is probably the most expensive museum we’ve ever visited (run by National Trust) at AUS$50, but one of the best. As Cook struggled to reach what was to be named Cooktown, his crew had to jettison several cannons and anchors in order to stay afloat. These were recovered in 1969 and now have pride of place in the museum. The exhibits describe the various interactions the crew had with the indigenous population and due to poor communication they were often at odds with each other. An example was when the crew of the Endeavour had caught turtles and the aborigines tried to throw them back in the sea. There was a great misunderstanding as the local people were trying to show them they had caught too many and needed to help sustain them by quotas, instead a stand off ensued but somehow it ended correctly for both sides.

The museum also described Cape York, the huge peninsula north of Cooktown and the cultural and natural history that can still be found in this unspoilt wilderness.

One especially interesting exhibit concerned WWII and the forced expatriation of the indigenous peoples from Cape York, (primarily because they’d been setting up trade links with the Japanese), to Woorabinda, where Tali was working. This was not Australia’s finest hour as this transport was not done in the kindest way, the second leg being transport in cattle trucks to the station at Woorabinda. For a lot of them, this was the first time they had left their country ( a term used by each aboriginal group to describe their territory) and were terrified of all the new things they were forced to see or use e.g. trains. After the war, people could return up north. But they had to walk! Even now there are strong links between the indigenous people of Cooktown and Woorabinda as many have relatives who chose to stay further south, despite the “cold”…

The weather was fiercely hot, humid and we had a lot of rain and lightning but it was a lovely place to visit, despite being verbally abused by some indigenous folk in the park who appeared to have over-indulged on their purchases from the local bottleshop.

The views from the town are impressive with thick mangrove forests coating the shoreline and providing shelter for salties..

Further out of town is access to a river and beaches, all beautiful but brimming with danger..

The best viewpoint from Cooktown is known as Grassy Hill, used by Cook to plan his escape route and so avoid yet another issue with the reef. The views were stunning

As were the large numbers of Pacific swifts feeding low over the viewpoint..

Low-level feeding like this indicates an approaching storm

The mirror on our car proved irresistible to an Olive-backed sunbird. When not perched on top he was looking at himself, probably thinking he had a rival!

The weather forecast wasn’t looking too good so we decided to move on, back south to Port Douglas which, theoretically at least, could be a good base to explore the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree National Park, Cape Tribulation and Mossman Gorge. That morning the invaluable RACQ road app showed the only access road to Port Douglas from the north was closed due to flooding so we left knowing a change of plan might be called for. In the end the road had been opened by the time we arrived so, apart from 2 places where the road was inundated, it was straightforward. We stayed at cheap accommodation in the centre of town and on our first day drove out to Mossman Gorge, situated in the southernmost part of the Daintree rainforest. The gorge itself is very popular with coach tours and organised trips out from Cairns and has a sophisticated system for managing large numbers of tourists. A large information centre also provides food and shopping and a shuttle bus takes people out to the start of the 4 walks that can be done. In addition a “dreamtime” walk, guided by the indigenous people, is also on offer. We took the latter, to start and were met by Tony who performed a smoke ceremony to ward off all the evil spirits of the forest as we walking through it…

Tony was entertaining and informative, explaining how the indigenous people explain the mysteries of the forest and used the resources it provided. One example was Boyd’s forest dragon, a rare lizard found only in the rainforest

The aborigines explain the origin of this animal in terms of a story. A young aborigine was transformed and each individual characteristic of the forest dragon is explained by linking it to the story. Too complicated to remember all the details, it made a good story!

Another was the use of plant leaves to produce soap, tried and tested and worked!

and shelter

As part of the walk we passed by some large boulders upon which he claimed there were paintings / carvings, again a degree of imagination was required! After which he demonstrated hand painting and how different colours were used from rocks, charcoal etc.

As we completed the walk he showed us the nest site of the Buff-breasted paradise kingfisher, a tunnel bored into a termite nest

Later we did a few of the walks along the gorge

Finally seeing one of those special kingfishers

On day 2 we took a catamaran trip out to a cay on the Great Barrier Reef where we could go snorkelling at a couple of locations known for the giant clams, turtles, rays, variety of coral and fish. First we had to put on our stinger suits…

The snorkelling was fantastic, the sea was like a millpond and the gear they provided was excellent. The variety and colours of the corals and fish was second to none. Floating and watching was so therapeutic….

In-between snorkels we went out on a glass-bottomed boat….

A rare view of the reef from above

….landed on the cay

…after dislodging the locals

Brown noddys and Bridled terns

In-between activities we were well looked after, the food was good and the staff very friendly and accommodating. It was now time to move, up to Daintree village and possibly the only available accommodation, right on the river.

The rooms were tiny, with little storage but outside each door was a huge shared balcony with kettle, hob, microwave and toaster. That night was very special, being Valentine’s Day and we did each other proud, eating microwaved soup on the insect-infested deck outside our room, as the pub was closed

We had to cross the river to get to Cape Tribulation, so named by Captain Cook as this was the area in which the Endeavour was holed by colliding with the Great Barrier Reef. He was clearly too distracted by the possible loss of his ship to notice the beauty of the place. En-route there was a lockout over the estuary of the Daintree.

A quick bite at the Cape Trib Beach House, located at the end of the sealed road north and right on the beach adjacent to Cape Trib itself….

A quick stroll onto the beach and Helen was 35 years younger, reminded of the day her and Debs arrived at this magical spot. It hadn’t changed a bit, although rough cabins have been updated to a smart villa complex

And finally onto the viewpoint on Cape Trib itself. But why was Cape Tribulation so-named?

The following day we’d booked a 2 hour bird & wildlife river tour leaving at 0630am from the dock below our cabin but overnight the weather changed and we were woken at various times by the furious hammering of rain on our tin roof. Finally the camp owner came down and told us the tour was off as no boats were leaving from that dock that day although the following morning might be possible. Given the sparse nature of our digs, that boat tours were the only thing that could realistically be done in the pouring rain and that Barratts Creek, on our escape route south, was rising fast, we decided to run for it and left early for Palm Cove and civilisation.

Escape from Daintree

The next morning we checked the webcam which shows the status of the bridge over Barratt Creek (i.e. the only way out going southwards)

And the webcam by the ferry terminal (i.e. the only way out of Daintree, going north)

So vindicating our decision to scarper! Being stuck in Daintree with 1 pub (open 5 evenings a week), no shop (shut all of Feb) and no tours to enjoy might have been challenging.

Heading down the Captain Cook Highway we stopped off at The Rex Lookout which overlooks Trinity Bay

Before arriving at Palm Cove, our home for an unprecedented 4 days

Welcome to Palm Cove!

Once the weather calmed down we indulged in a trip to Harvey’s Crocodile Adventures, a crocodile farm…

..with a multitude of entertaining and educational activities on the side. Firstly was the snake handler, with an inland taipan, only the most venomous snake on the planet. Quite how he simultaneously spoke so well and safely handled this snake was very impressive.

Is it wrong to secretly hope the snake bites the handler?

Then the croc handler, using a new crocodile with all the potential risks that could entail…

Don’t do this at home

Followed by a wander round the freshie enclosure

An aviary

Blue-winged kookaburra
Papuan frogmouth

And the camouflaged lizard section

A good day all round.

The next day was planned for something we’d wanted to do since Tali went there in 2022..the Skyrail, a cable car that runs from just north of Cairns over the rainforest to Kuranda stopping a couple of times on the way. Firstly so passengers can disembark and walk through the forest and secondly, a stop to see the impressive waterfall on the Barron river. It was the first time Helen had smiled since we reached the rainforest, safe in the knowledge that only mechanical failure or a rapid onset and violent thunderstorm could hurt her..

Looking back over the Coral Sea

Walking in the rainforest is fascinating, it’s a hugely rich environment but it’s unusual to see birds or animals as the majority of the action takes place way up in the canopy, well beyond our ability to see. So would passing over the canopy help at all?

The answer is no. The bird song and the cicadas were loud and certainly indicated there was life below but seeing anything proved just as difficult. We were also told that young snakes concealed themselves in the fern baskets that grow up on some of the trees. These too were impossible to see. As we reached the second stop we crossed the Barron river

And passed adjacent to the falls themselves

The falls are a little misleading as just upstream is a massive dam, built in the 1930s to provide irrigation water to the farms on the Atherton Tablelands, so the falls are only there in times of heavy rainfall. In the winter there are no falls.

Who can resist a rainbow?

Arriving in Kuranda, situated just upstream from the dam, we disembarked and walked into the village and returned to the railway station via a riverside walk. The Kuranda Scenic Railway was originally built to serve the goldmines and proved to be a challenging engineering project. What is in no doubt is that Kuranda station must be one of the most attractive stations anywhere

The train stopped at one location on the way down to Cairns, on the opposite side of the falls

A great day out, and certainly to be recommended to any tourists visiting this area.

It was time to move on, this time to Magnetic Island, situated just off the coast some 250 miles south, and accessed via a barge..or, in English, a ferry.

Days 242 – 252 (Jan 29th – Feb 8th) North to Cooktown

Leaving Emerald for Charters Towers involved a long trek through the outback on fortuitously quiet roads. Irrespective of the lack of stopping places or services and the utter tedium of driving such long distances the biggest hazard is the road trains defined as trucks with 2 or more trailers 36.5 metres or more in length. These monsters can’t stop quickly and are very difficult to overtake so the advice is to get out of the way if one comes up behind you and don’t try and overtake. They are very impressive beasts, but best seen at a distance.

Charters Towers was a convenient stop-off in that there was accommodation available and things to do, being the main goldrush town in Queensland. At its peak the town was known as “The World” as everything you ever needed could be found there, so there was never any reason to leave. As with all such places, fortunes were made, fortunes were lost and the history is full of wonderful stories of the characters who lived and died there. The weather was incredibly hot so our sightseeing was brief but we did see many of the old buildings

Plus a hint at a conflict between man and beast…

Our original route was to have taken us further inland to the Undara National Park, but the lodge they have to accommodate visitors is closed in the summer leaving us with no choice but to head to the coast again, this time to Mission Beach, a laidback, unspoilt stretch of beach which backs onto wet tropical rainforest, perfect habitat for the endangered Southern cassowary as well as many other birds found nowhere else on the planet. As we approached the coast we passed through a unique area where 2 world heritage areas meet (apparently this is the only place where this happens)

The scenery was stunning

Arriving in Mission Beach we were again assaulted by the heat and, mornings aside, spent much time doing very little except cool off in the pool. Luckily our place looked right onto the beach so it wasn’t too bad

One morning I made an effort to spot a cassowary, visiting the 2 public areas which provide pathways through the forest and are supposedly good for cassowary spotting…

But it was not to be…instead, driving back, one decided to cross the road

Southern cassowary

Helen was now so concerned by all the dangers to her life that she devised a suit of armour to protect her from the sun, insects, ticks and snakes…

But not heat stroke or crocs

Mission Beach was also the location where one of our favourite netflix series, Irreverent, was filmed. The storyline is a highly plausible one of an American gangster arriving in the fictional North Queensland town of Clump and being confused for the new priest, the old one having become saltie food…it’s well worth a watch, if only for the first scene on the beach. Property prices in Mission Beach have never been the same since.

Before leaving the coast we stopped at Etty Bay, yet another beautiful, unspoilt beach well-known for Cassowary sightings. The beach has a stinger net to aid safe swimming, although it is not guaranteed as smaller ones are able to get through. Every beach in Queensland has a first aid box complete with bottles of vinegar to be used as a first response to a sting (pour 2 litres over area and do not rub!), and seek medical help immediately. Although predominantly a summer problem from November to May, they can be around anytime of year and can be fatal.

The heat was oppressive so our next stop was to be the Atherton Tablelands, a lush, green area inland with the advantage of much higher altitude and supposedly cooler temperatures. the whole area was once covered in rainforest but that changed in the early 1900s until logging was stopped in the 1960s when the Wet Tropics Heritage Area was created. Now it is a large area of remnant bits of rainforest, lots of green pasture and lakes, with a large number of unique bird and animal species. There are also a fair number of waterfalls and we stopped at 3 on our way to Millaa Millaa

Ellinjaa Falls
Zillie Falls
Millaa Millaa waterfall

We wanted to stay in a rainforest lodge but none were available for 2 nights so we made do at a place in Yungaburra, a very pretty village.

Near here was a large reservoir, Lake Tinaroo, much of which is surrounded by rainforest but which is otherwise quite disappointing.

Two volcanic crater lakes were nearby. Lake Barrine

and Lake Eacham

which has a resident freshie

which no-one seems to take much notice of.

Also nearby is the Peterson Creek walking trail which starts at a platypus hide and walks along the river. The whole area has been effectively rewilded from what it used to be, a run-down river with little interest in terms of wildlife. Now, after years of volunteer effort, it has been restored to it’s full glory, including rare tree kangeroos.

Two other places of interest were Hasties Swamp, a tiny national park which encompasses the swamp only but which has been equipped with a fantastic hide for birdwatchers and photographers

Hasties swamp

and the Curtain Fig Tree national park, which contains the Curtain Fig Tree

Finally we moved into our forest accommodation, Chambers Wildlife Forest, which is set in the midst of rainforest filled with the noise of cicadas and birds, most of which were hidden from view. One feature of this place is the daily feeding of forest mammals by smearing honey on a tree truck at night and waiting to see what turns up

Long-nosed bandicoot

This is very much a place where nature is still very much in control. If the lights are too low, the owls will take the gliders, or a python will take a possum. On a walk round the grounds I came back with hitchhikers in the form of leeches. The wildlife here is diverse, including 12 bird species that occur nowhere else in of which being the grey-headed robin

The owners of the lodge encourage guests to put fruit out on the balconies to attract some of the endemic bird species, such as honeyeaters and rifleman birds. This worked a little but the most switched on species was the Australian brushturkey

This was a fabulous place, with wildlife everywhere, but 3 nights of self-catering was stretching our meagre resources and it was time to move on, to the most northerly point on our trip, Cooktown.

Days 238 – 242 (Jan 25th – Jan 29th) Emerald

Emerald (none are found here – named after an Irish settler who thought it was very green!) is better known for it’s proximity to the sapphire mines of the Gemfields, Sapphire and Rubyvale

…than as a tourist destination in its own right, but it has at least made an effort with the The Big Easel and the insect-infested associated mosaic pathway situated behind the very helpful tourist information office which itself is situated next to the never-open Pioneer Cottage complex

For us Emerald was the perfect meeting place for a long weekend (with Tali) with plenty of accommodation with pools and a number of places to eat. Our first walk was to the botanical gardens where we noted a few new bird species including the Oriental dollarbird, Pale-headed rosella and the very noisy Sulphur-crested cockatoo

That afternoon we drove out to the famous Lake Maraboon in the hope of some shade and cooler weather but this was not to be as temperatures soared to over 33C

That evening we were delighted to see the huge movement of fruit bats from their roost sites to feeding areas

Our first excursion into the Gem Fields was to Sapphire, a tiny village surrounded by piles of discarded top soil reminiscent of Yukon and small mining operations. The local shop had a number of claims for sale extolling the virtues of living a simple life in the area. We stopped purely by chance at Greg and Carol’s place, the base of their company Armfest which operates an open-cast mine a few kms away. As we found out all these mining companies have several strings to their bows, supplementing mining with offering gem cutting, gems for sale and the opportunity for tourists to fossick through gravel provided by the company and find their own sapphires. However, as we drove up their drive past their ponds and across the dam we had no idea what was in store for us. Tourism to the Gem Fields peaks in the winter and is at its lowest in the height of the summer so we were the only people there and we were met by their son, BJ. We spent a lot of time with him, learning about the mining, the hazards, the costs and the comparisons with gold prospecting in the Yukon. They sell AUS$75 bags of stone which are partially filtered from the output of their mine. The final cut is the one they use to find the best gemstones suitable for cutting but the bags represent a guaranteed means of picking out true sapphires. The bag is first filtered and then washed before being spread on a board and likely specimens picked out

Once likely stones have been picked out then Carol came out and showed us how to identify which were the best sapphires and so could be suitable for cutting for use in jewelry. They work with a Thai company that will cut any stone for AUS$3 and then post them back within 3 months. This company sponsor a local gemfest each year and are well-respected. So that was the sapphire bit of our visit.

Then the really interesting bit began. Carole asked if BJ had told us what happened to her a few months ago when there was a storm? No…… she proceeded to tell us how the higher dam (seen in the pictures above), was disappearing and the lower dam was filing up. At 5.30 am, her and her husband went to explore and realised there was a leak between the two and so he went off to their mine to bring a top loader back so they could shore up the bridge made of gravel and also find the leak and cover it in gravel. She noticed a whirlpool in the lower dam and as she had a handy shovel, decided to start filling in the area near the whirlpool on her own. The ground around the dam was clay and very slippery and she fell into the dam and was sucked into the whirlpool and thought she was dead, only to discover it had trapped her under their bridge in a small air pocket. After deliberating her chances of survival as being nil, and hearing a vehicle go across the bridge, she decided she had to do something or the family would not find her body or realise what happened to her. She took several big breathes , relaxed totally and pushed off using the shovel she was still grasping. She awoke on the side of the dam to her and BJ’s amazement (it was him arriving in his car). Her husband arrived back, drove over the bridge she had been under and the top loader went through where she had been and got stuck. She believed, if she had stayed where she was, she would have been crushed by the truck. Only as outbackers can do, she went off to shower all the muck off and her husband and son went to get another truck to pull the first one out so they could repair the bridge. When asked if she had got checked out by a Dr, she said she had gone a few days later and had broken ribs, bruised hip and various other minor injuries but hey that’s life out here. She did say she now has a fear of water!

Day 2, with Tali this time, was initially to the Miners Heritage walk-in mine in the town of Rubyvale. Previously an active sapphire mine this was now entirely devoted to running tourist tours of the workings

It’s not a deep mine, the depth dictated by the depth of the ancient river beds which contain the sapphires, so it was a gentle walk down to the working faces

And the Bent-winged bats which breed down there

We then had two goes at fossiking, one at the mine which was just Tali and then moving back to Sapphire and another stone emporium, Pat’s Gems and yet more searching through rubble for semi-precious stones by us all.

A good day was had and we returned to Emerald with bags of potential, including a huge sapphire which was found by Helen, lost by Helen and was found again by the owner and given back to Helen. It can’t be cut as it has flaws but can be polished and mounted into jewelry.

We left Emerald the next day, leaving Tali to stay another night before she returned to Woorabinda. We were finally heading north, via part of the famous Great Inland Way to Charters Towers, interesting name, interesting history..

Days 235 – 237 (Jan 22nd – Jan 24th) Heading northwards towards Cairns and then south to Emerald

We’d booked a motel on the coast at Sarina Beach but stopped en route at a small place called Clairview. The caravan parks here allow day parking so the cafe and facilities are usually open to residents and casual drop ins like us. The BarraCrab Caravan park was probably representative of what Queensland used to be like before people elsewhere in Australia decided it would be worth moving to. A ramshackle bar/restaurant with seating immediately adjacent to the unspoilt and empty beach (although the very obvious warnings about stinger jellyfish may have had something to do with that). We had a crab sandwich and a wander along the beach before moving on. This would be a wonderful place to do nothing for a day or two or more..

Just down the road was the municipal notice board which gave more information about the area, which is now designated as a Dugong reserve

Our motel was in a similarly idyllic location which had direct access to a huge beach

View from our room

Our plan at this stage was to head north to Mackay and stock up on some North Queensland essentials such as snake bandages, long trousers and gaiters (for snakes and ticks respectively) before setting off towards Airlie Beach and, ultimately Cairns and Cape Tribulation. This was our rough idea….

Then Tali called. Thursday, 26th Jan was Australia Day (or Invasion day if you’re an aborigine) and she just been told she had a 4 day weekend and could she meet us? So, postponing plan A we reverted to plan B….arranging to meet her for 4 nights in Emerald, a town we’d all planned on visiting at some stage and which was roughly 2-3 hours from Worrabinda, where Tali is currently working.

Heading south we arrived in Clermont where we’d planned on staying overnight. We worked down the high street, stopping at all the motels asking for a room for the night. All were booked, filled with road workers who were busy repairing the roads after the recent storms. One rather large and very dark man even offered to share his room with me (Andy writing..) but I thought that was unfair on Helen and we moved on. We got to the stage of heading off towards Emerald when we threw the dice one last time, stopping at the Commercial Hotel, previously dismissed as it looked empty, derelict and unused.

Many of these outback towns have a “Commercial Hotel” and they all seem quite similar, presumably being the earliest accommodation made available to travellers and they combine that function with being a pub and gambling hall so are a one-stop shop for most of the vices…There were 2 bars, the sports bar and the gambling bar, both were quite busy as I walked in and asked for a room. They had more than one, which was both pleasing and worrying at the same time, but we were committed now and for the massive sum of AUS$60 (£40) we had ourselves a room opening onto the massive first floor balcony, a sink in the corner, aircon, and “communal” facilities. Helen was less than impressed but it was now a done deal and we moved our stuff in not knowing how things would unfold over the next 12 hours or so…

We went downstairs to get a drink and something to eat. Chatting to the bar staff it turned out all of them were from the UK. All backpackers, taking advantage of a scheme in Australia whereby if you work in a “rural” placement (definitions seemed to vary but north of the tropic of capricorn and inland seemed to be the most common) for 88 days then a 1 year visa could be extended to 2 years. The manager, an aussie, who we only met the next day, thought this was a great arrangement as otherwise getting staff for such a remote location would prove very difficult.

After dinner we went upstairs to luxuriate in our room only to find out that the air-conditioning unit, already swaddled in blue tape, had transformed itself into a tractor-impersonator, so sleep was out of the question. Downstairs again, speaking with the assistant manager (an ex-‘spoons manager) it turned out the our room should have been removed from the list as requiring maintenance. They couldn’t provide a fan and there were no other rooms available but they would refund our AUS$60….now we had an intolerably hot room, with no aircon, communal facilities, many hours until daybreak and a somewhat unhappy spouse… but it was free! Luckily the bar served Jamesons, an essential nightcap for such situations……for some!

We ran the aircon for as long as we dared and tried to sleep…..

At 0300, 0330, 0430, 0600, 0630 the fire alarm went off. At first we got up, peered out of our room, spoke to the two ladies next door but no-one from the staff turned up, there was evidently no fire so thereafter we ignored the sound but failed to sleep much. Checking the communal facilities, we decided to forget showering (would the floor hold out or the spiders get you?) so got up, packed the car and drove to the nearest tourist attraction, Hoods Lagoon, the site of the 1916 flood of such ferocity that it killed a staggering 65 members of the local community but which is now a fabulous local amenity and birdwatching area and one which has an enormous number of fruit bats.

Walking round the lake itself there were some nice birds to see

Returning to the hotel to get our refund, we stopped off at the mural opposite, a quite impressive depiction of the short but varied history of the town painted on old train wagons

Described in detail on the accompanying information board

So, a town with a fascinating history but terrible accommodation.

We stopped briefly at the Clermont Historical Centre, which was closed until March, and peered through the fencing and read a couple of information boards in the carpark.

Heading down to Emerald we had to stop at quite possibly the least deserving scenic lookout in the outback…

On to Emerald and an unexpected treat of seeing Tali again after 3 days.

Days 229 – 235 (Jan 16th – Jan 22nd) Yeppoon and the Capricorn coast

Yeppoon is the gateway town to the southern islands of the Great Barrier Reef, notably Great Keppel Island and is situated close enough to Rockhampton to be considered a commuter base / weekend retreat for the better off people of that town. Dreadful weather conditions, in the form of a cyclone which had formed in the Coral Sea, pushed heavy wind and rain all down the east coast of Australia from the very north to Brisbane and this meant we had to cancel our trip to the Broken River Mountain Resort in the Eungella National Park. This would have been the ideal tonic for too many days in the city with numerous walks in the tropical rainforest and platypus watching from our balcony. Not being able to move north (or west) because of road conditions or south because we’d been there already, restricted our options to staying put for a while in an apartment overlooking the ocean.

Monsoon conditions combined with the sound of roosting rainbow lorikeets

Finally, the rain eased off for a while and we took ourselves to the Koorana Crocodile Farm. This was initially stocked with “problem” crocs removed from residential areas and they now have a huge area set aside for thousands of crocs thanks to their breeding programme, producing meat and leather goods as well as offering tourists an attraction in its own right. The tour consisted of crocs of different sizes being fed chicken carcasses accompanied by a number of good stories and information from our guide. We were shown and told how to recognise croc activity in the outback around rivers and lakes. Basically if there’s no grass on the riverbank, turn around and go back, if you get chased by a croc, run in a straight line and don’t climb a tree. They can go months without eating, so who would give up first? We were also told, if a female mates with the same male, they will all produce the same amount of eggs (40-80), the female will always produce the same amount of fertile eggs, around 70% and then these figures are passed on down to the next generations. Is this true? I have no idea.

On leaving the farm we headed for Emu Park, a seaside town south of Yeppoon best known not for it’s emus but for the, quote, “remarkably beautiful Singing Ship sculpture”, yet another tribute to Captain Cooke who discovered Keppel Bay between the 26th and 28th May 1770. This area is shared with a large tribute to the Anzacs.

Up in the hills between Rockhampton and Yeppoon are the Capricorn Caves, a privately owned site next to the Mount Etna Caves National Park, home to a large proportion of the entire Australian population of Little bent-wing bats. There are 3 types of cave tour available, a short one for those of a more delicate nature, an intermediate one which includes some ladders, tight spots and mud and a third one which includes all of those things plus some climbing. We embarked on the intermediate tour, looking at three separate caves, all accessed after a walk through “dry rainforest“, an apparent contradiction in terms. Patches of dry rainforest are now increasingly rare as they are very susceptible to bush fires and encroachment from invasive plant species. None of the caves had an entrance such as you might find in the Blue John caves in Derbyshire, instead it was scramble through the undergrowth and into a narrow entrance on the hillside, so much more authentic! These caves are created from limestone and are quite large inside with dramatic views. In one section some of us were guided through some very narrow tunnels, through a deep puddle and then up a steep slippery slope to re-join the group. It was so much fun!

On leaving the Capricorn site we moved to one of two access points to the Mount Etna National Park which was created primarily to protect the rare bats that use the caves as a maternity site. The history of the park is very interesting as it was originally owned by a cement company who started blowing up the caves so they could use the limestone in their products. A long protracted fight with environmentalists and bat conservationists resulted in the project being halted and the park was established. Evening bat walks can be booked where a ranger escorts you to the cave entrances to set the bats streaming out at dusk to attack the local insect populations…

Given our prolonged stay in Yeppoon we dropped in at the local tourist information centre to enquire about walks and birdwatching places along the coast. This was our 2nd visit, the first being to ask about trips to Great Keppel Island, and both were noteworthy for the incredible welcome and advice we received from the volunteers who run these places. On this occasion one of the volunteers told us she’d lived in Southampton for years and was planning to go back on a cruise this year as part of a Europe-wide trip.

The sun was now out, temperatures were in the high 20s and we headed out to one of the better birding places on the coast, the little known Kinka Wetland, an amazing local initiative set up as part of a wider project to ensure the sustainability of the Great Barrier Reef. We drove up the flooded dirt track, parked at the end of the road and set off up the path. The sun was very hot, there was no breeze and much of the swamp was dry despite the recent rains.

Helen was armed with sticks to ward off marauding snakes and then we ran into a chap with binoculars and very large camera and telephoto lens. Andrew, being his name, was supposed to be working from home but had taken time to check the swamp for birds as he is a volunteer for Birdlife Capricornia, and assists with many of the surveys and initiatives of the group. He started to describe what he’d seen, saw the blank look in our eyes and offered to guide us round, an offer we couldn’t refuse. He’s also provided information on a lot of sites up north and around where Tali is at the moment in Woorabinda so our meeting was extremely fortuitous.

Our next stop was at Bluff Point, part of the Capricorn Coast National Park, which consists of several headlands along the coastline which all retain rainforest and other protected environments. As is usual, the carparks are situated near shade and picnic areas equipped with barbeques. The walk up to one of the lookouts and then onto the beach resulted in spectacular views.

That evening we were serenaded by the roosting rainbow lorikeets..

The next morning Lammermoor Native Gardens were visited on the recommendation of our birding friend. The carpark is by the beach and tracks lead both into the gardens and up the beach, giving a range of different routes and habitat types. The bird life was spectacular, the most dramatic bird being the huge Red-tailed black cockatoo but a large number of species have been reported there. Our next destination was to be the Byfield National Park, a largely inaccessible park just north of Yeppoon. In fact it turned out to be entirely inaccessible as a river crossing was still deemed too dangerous following the recent rains.

Instead we drove over to Wreck Point Lookout, where there are good views along the coast as well as over to North and Great Keppel Islands as well as bit of seafarer-related history, notably Captain James Cook and a less well-known navigator called Matthew Flinders who circumnavigated the entire continent and charted the coastline as he did so.

Our final stop was inland at Lake Mary, a water body known for attracting a variety of bird species.

On the way we encountered the strange looking Pheasant coucal, one of the many cuckoo species which breed in Australia but the only one which doesn’t parasitize other birds in order to breed. At the lake itself we came across what looked like an adult Brolga and 2 young

Accompanied by several kites (probably whistling and black kites) and a beautiful Wedge-tailed eagle, the largest eagle in Australia. What these predators were doing is unknown but it’s more than likely they saw one of the young cranes as potential prey and the adult crane was getting quite agitated.

The following day Tali came over and we revisited some of the places described above. Firstly Bluff Point where we did the full walk this time

Then back to Lammermoor where we had an encounter in the carpark

Coastal taipan

Described better here. Tali first noticed it in an area of scrub, in the process of swallowing a rat-sized animal. A few people came over and spooked the snake which regurgitated it’s prey and tried to escape. In doing so it crossed paths and areas being used by people so caused quite a stir, eventually finding a more secluded area and disappearing from view. Note to selves : buy the 1st aid snake compression bandage to have to hand in case the next encounter doesn’t end so happily!

Tali returned to Rocky and we prepared for our postponed trip up north…

Days 221 – 229 (Jan 8th – Jan 16th) Brisbane to the Gold Coast, Bundaberg, the Tropic of Capricorn and Rockhampton

A 2 day trip from Brisbane to Rockhampton (Rocky), largely because we took the opportunity to visit our friends Sonya & Greg who live on Hope Island in the Gold Coast. We met them during our Alaskan trip and shared one or two raucous nights during our time together. Heading up to Rocky was a good opportunity to drop in and relive some of those memories. Hope Island was once a swamp but has been turned into a massive, mainly gated community. Mode of transport to the shops, visiting neighbours and going to the pub is by golf buggy. So, having dropped off our car, we were picked up by buggy and taken to the Boardwalk Tavern, a large restaurant and bar that had an incredible selection on the menu. We were joined by 2 of their 4 children and had a great afternoon catching up, playing trivia and relaxing. We were driven home by buggy and hope to meet again before leaving Australia.

The following day we headed north through the awful Brisbane traffic, finally stopping off at Maryborough, famous for being the birthplace of the creator of a childhood musical, Mary Poppins.

The town itself is quite old by Australian standards and has a few nice buildings

Next brief stop was supposed to be Childers but we got distracted by a brief sighting of a road name as we approached the town centre. Following this up we finally got a photo

Irrespective of the fact the family in question may have been related to those incarcerated in the Tasmanian penal colony (see previous blog for Hobart) it seems only correct to investigate a little further and a request has been sent to the local history society.

To keep you awake on the long drives, the Aussies have decided trivia will keep you vigilant, if only to see the answers to the questions on the roadside. I now know a baby echidna is called…a puggle and many more interesting facts!

Finally we arrived in Bundaberg, famous for it’s rum distillery and proximity to the southern-most islands of the Great Barrier Reef and Mon Repos, a beach which hosts the largest population of Loggerhead turtles on the east coast of Australia. The visitor centre is excellent, geared up to educate children and local people and the work of the staff there has ensured most turtle beaches are now protected by national park status. The centre offers tours to watch the turtles clambering ashore to lay their eggs (in Oct – Dec) and then to watch the eggs hatch (Nov – Feb) but these are so popular that booking ahead for months is vital, not the 2 days we hoped for. We might be able to drop in on our way back to Sydney. However, we checked out the beach

Oddly a feature of Bundaberg that doesn’t appear in the travel guides is the Baldwin Swamp Environment Park, situated in the middle of town, it retains some of the original swamp land prior to development of the area. An early morning walk was interesting, a few new bird species and a lot of roosting fruit bats. These animals are restless, forever scrabbling, even during the day, and calling incessantly. This is a great fruit farming area but it’s difficult to imagine the local fruit farmers are entirely welcoming..

The rum distillery is the a feature of the town and they have made distillery visits a smooth and slick part of their marketing. Arriving at the site a number of wittily written boards describe the history of the site and how rum came to be made there and then you have to walk past a huge “library” of all the products they have made.

This is followed by the tour proper and then the tasting

Doing her best to avoid driving back

It was fun but but despite her best efforts Helen still isn’t really converted to the rum cause

Leaving Bundaberg we stopped off at Seventeen Seventy, so named as this was Captain Cook’s first landing place in Queensland in May 1770. Together with Agnes Water this is a very pretty coastal area

Moving on we came across the Calliope River Historical Village which was just closing but is run by a very enthusiastic group of volunteers who were most likely older than the village itself

And finally we arrived in Rocky, passing over the Tropic of Capricorn into the tropics just as the monsoon season started…

The next few days were spent finalising Tali’s arrangements to move to Woorabinda and avoiding the wet, windy but warm weather. We did make two visits to the top of Mount Archer where there are 3 walkways to various parts of the summit, overlooking different parts of the region. The cloud didn’t assist with this!

Tali left on the Sunday and we moved on, in search of the sunshine…

Days 216 – 221 (Jan 3rd – Jan 8th) Brisbane

Leaving Noosa, prompted a short stop at IKEA! Tali needed stuff for her move to Rockhampton. This of course meant a trip to their restaurant for Swedish meatballs.

Then Tali collected her car

Andy was released and returned to our hotel in Brisbane, while Tali and I went on a clothes shopping trip. This could have been fraught, a waste of time, caused a massive falling out (as it has done occasionally in the past), but turned out to be a joy. We found 2 shops that Tali liked and so she ended up with a years worth of mainly linen clothes for both her work and generally. Sorted!

That evening she had booked us a table at The German Club, a bar and restaurant near The famous Gabba, the Brisbane cricket ground. The beer was good (I’m told), and they had Asbach (always a winner with me) but unfortunately a lot of the typical German food was off the menu but we managed with Schnitzel and sausages.

Wednesday was jobs and in the evening, the three of us went to Six The Musical, which is definitely worth seeing anywhere in the world. It is about Henry VIII’s wives, any other info would spoil it.

Thursday was more jobs for Tali, cleaning and finishing packing up her flat and loading her car. I thought we were on holiday? Take out pizza, risotto and salad from a rather posh Italian, finished the day off. We left Tali for her last night in her flat and trudged wearily back to our hotel.

The next day, Andy went to the flat to oversee the “bond clean”, Tali went to collect Sian from the airport, welcome poster in hand as well as a really useful hat. Sian has been a friend since they were teenagers, playing cricket together.
Flat sorted, friend collected, time to move on to holiday mode again.

We had booked a restaurant only to discover they weren’t serving food, so gave that a miss and walked to the South Bank, same idea as London but with more restaurants, open air free cinema and other events but best of all a huge beach complete with numerous swimming pools that has lifeguards until midnight ! What a city.

We also had a quick go on the electric scooters dotted all over the city. Fun but expensive.

The next day after repacking her car, Tali left for a 7 hour journey to Rockhampton (Rocky) which actually took 9 hours.

Sian moved to her hostel to decide what to do next and we went for a walk along the river. As it got hotter and more humid we decided to catch the City Cat which is a ferry that took us down the Brisbane river as far as Northshore Hamilton and then bought us back to South Bank.

Sunday, we left Brisbane for our trip up north……