Travels 2011- North Queensland

We spent a week at the camping ground (#55) near the Peter Faust Dam on the Proserpine River - 22kms from Proserpine.  The camping ground utilises the former accommodation units, ablution, kitchen and dining facilities used by the dam's construction workers and  caters primarily for school and youth groups and is managed by the local Lions Club. 

                       

Barracks like Camp Kanga

On the day we arrived the camp was empty save for one other camp.  But later a group of 20 or so keen young barra fishermen arrived to camp in the dongas who were treating a mate to a 'Buck's Weekend of Fishin' prior to his marriage.  They came from Caldwell  and all had purpose design barra boats with 60-40hp outboards plus electric motors and very expensive looking Loomis fishing rods and reels.  Despite the gear, they caught zilch over the two days they were here!  It appears that the party was originally supposed to be much larger and the manager of the camp had been commissioned to provide them with a fully cooked evening meal and she freely gave us two of the unwanted meals of roast chicken and 3 veg on the night of our arrival. 

This dam was built in 1990 and until this year had never been full.  Since its construction the dam has received 1000s of Barra fingerlings and it has had a reputation of holding plenty of very big fish including Barramundi, Saratoga and Sooty Grunter. Unfortunately, the heavy rains this year have resulted in literally 1000s of fish being washed over the open spillway - many of the larger (one metre plus) fish were mortally injured and their foul-smelling corpses can be found all around the banks of the downstream river just below our camp ground.

               

The fisheries people are planning to place a fine net in front of the spillway in order to prevent any recurrence of this Lemming-like behaviour.

We quickly unloaded the boat and folding trailer and over 3-4 days, proceeded to thrash the dam by trolling, casting and even resorting to laying live red claw baits behind the boat; all to no avail .  We did however manage to catch as many red claw as we wanted.  We used them for bait as well as to eat - found them a little tasteless like so many fresh-water critters.

Unfortunately, Maria tore  or twisted a muscle in her upper shoulder/neck area during the boat unloading exercise and as a consequence had to receive two sessions of massage and acupuncture from a local visiting Physiotherapist in Proserpine.  This has caused us to re-think the boat's racking and we will have to give serious consideration to moving it onto the car so as we do not have to unload and reload it every night.  Another unpleasant incident occurred while at the Dam and this was the mysterious punctures in alot of our packet food stores as well as an attack on the new box of Kleenex Tissues - yes we had a free-loading rodent on board.  While we bought both baits as well as traps we deployed the latter first and were successful in scoring the mouse on the first night.....its a mystery how it got in.

Maria being a bit wary as the blighters can nip you

                   

 However, as compensation, it was a beautiful bit of water to boat about on with plenty of bird life including sea eagles, cormorants, egrets, ducks and even some black swans.  Our new 9.8hp outboard managed to push Maria and I around at about 12.5kts which was plenty.  I also succumbed to actually registering the dinghy as required under Qld law.....pure humbug for a tinny and it costs the same as a 5m vessel.

                       

Up one of the many creeks running into the dam

Then, one evening the local caretaker invited me to accompany him to the river below  the camping ground to share a few beers and have a cast or two and what do you know - I got one - jeez and its been a long-time between drinks.  The distinctive smell associated with Barramundi came back to me as I filleted the prize.  The resultant fillets provided two evening meals for Maria and I later that week.

Stop Press - replacement credit cards at last been received after a nervous wait of some 13 days - we  feel better now!

With fresh credit cards stowed we hit the road again this time intent on exploring the coastline adjoining the Coral Sea between Townsville and Cairns.  We had not travelled this way since the early 1990s when we returned to Darwin via Cairns after having enrolled our daughter in university in Melbourne.  This stretch of coast has some towering tropical rainforest stretches which revert to ribbons of coastal cane farms  before meeting golden sandy beaches. 

After our Navman successfully navigated us to Townsville's Dan Murphy's for some essential supplies we drove on another 90kms north and pulled up at the Jourama Falls in the Paluma Range NP (#34) for a one night stopover.  The 3km strenuous hike to the falls was well worth it as can be seen by the snaps below.

                      

 The route is also dotted with small fishing and tourist hamlets all with well-known evocative names.  We popped into  a number including, Lucinda, Cardwell, Tully Heads, Mission Beach, Bingil Bay, Kurrimine Beach, Etty Bay and Bramston Beach.   Each has its own peculiar attractions; viz Lucinda - great beach and safe boating opportunities in the Hinchinbrook Channel. The private camp ground was very crowded and expensive ($190/wk).  I was told that one can use Lucinda's wharf to verify the earth's curvature.

                                   

                                            Lucinda's 5.7 km long Sugar Loading Wharf                                          Boat launching into the Chanel behind Hinchinbrook Island

As we approached Cardwell we got an eyeful of the terrible devastation caused by Cyclone Yasi back in February 2011 which affected so much of the coast line between here and north to Kurrimine Beach.  While the press had concentrated on the losses incurred at Keith Williams' ritzy new marina development at the southern approaches to the town, they omitted to mention the devastation to the old town - which was substantial.

       

        

Cardwell had copped a real hammering and you could not help but marvel at the stoicism of the town's residents.  We stopped at the local fish and chip shop which bore a sign "we survived (cyclone) Category 5" for a light lunch of some excellent Spanish Mackerel.  As we proceeded north, the towns of Kennedy, Euramo, Tully, and even the urbane Mission Beach all showed signs of lost rooves, stripped tropical forests and not a  single Cassowary to be seen.  On the strong recommendation of Harry Stapleton we had intended to spend a few days at Kurrimine Beach but, alas it too had been ravaged by Yasi -  so we moved north to Etty Bay recommended by the caretaker back at Camp Kanga in Proserpine - but it was very crowded being only a pocket-sized  camp ground. 

We eventually pushed on to Bramston Beach (#15) which turned out to be a real winner.  Bramston Beach is only 70kms south of Cairns and 16km off the highway - opposite Mt Bartle Frere which at 1622m is Qld's highest mountain.. There is a beautifully shaded council-run camp ground where one was permitted to use generators (no powered sites).  The camp ground is right on a magnificent deeply-shelving beach with a concrete boat ramp into a mangrove creek 3 kms away, local shop 100m away - it had it all we wanted and we propped, even moving sites the second day to be closer to the beach.  It was a even nice to find a Green Tree Frog in the loo - unfortunately, i had left my frog clearing clothes hanger back in Darwin.

      

 

Moving the Dinghy to the new Camp Site

       

Bramston Beach and Stinger-netted Swimming enclosure

                   

Groined mangrove creek and boat ramp

We learnt from a local resident of some 25yrs standing that Bramston had like so many beach side hamlets been originally developed by local farmers as a place to erect simple beachside dongas and that over the years they had been joined by townsfolk from Cairns, Gordonvale and Babinda seeking to build weekend holiday houses.   If you like, you can drive to the Russell River National Park 10kms away and have a complete bush camp, sans toilets , boat ramp and stinger-netted swimming enclosure.  During a particularly wet afternoon (of which there were a couple) we drove into Babinda  another sugar town which challenges Tully as the wettest town in Australia.  It refers to itself as the "Umbrella Town" and the following annual rainfall figures explain why:

According to the weather bureau the town has already received  3200mm this year to May.

Just prior to leaving, we received a phone call from Des Larson and partner Dianne (mates from Yeppoon) who had just  commenced their own around Australia odyssey and were camped at nearby Innisfail. They arranged to come and pay us a visit for lunch.  It was good to get together again and to share travel tales.  We will meet up with them again in Darwin and intend to travel to Birdsville with them in September.

Three Happy Travellers

We eventually forced ourselves to pack up and leave Bramston Beach during a break in the overcast weather.  However before leaving the district we decided to explore the nearby Josephine Falls and The Boulders which has a reputation of claiming the lives of quite a few reckless adventurers who have attempted to swim in its wild currents.  Josephine Falls on the side of Mt Bartle Frere were particularly impressive:

                           

Enroute to Josephine Falls

              

 

                                

 

               

                   

During morning tea at Babinda, the local baker came out for a break from his hot ovens and began to chat with us and in passing let us know that there was a good free camp at Gordonvale just up the road.  So we decided to prop there for the night along with about eight other happy transiting campers.  This camp was right next to the new bridge spanning the Mulgrave River and as a consequence turned out to be a bit noisy.  However, earlier on in the afternoon while checking out this camping area, I directed Maria down a very narrow  service road with a just too low tunnel.  As we could not readily reverse on this ditch of a road, we had to unceremoniously take the boat off, drive the car and van through and then physically carry the boat through the tunnel - Maria's sore shoulder was not impressed.  We later spent the afternoon exploring the sugar mill town of Gordonvale before returning to the campsite via the 'proper' access road.

We should never have tried 'a quickie' and leave the front end unextended as the spare bed got sodden overnight

That night it poured with rain and for the first time we had to pack up the campervan wet.  This could not be avoided as I had booked the campervan in for a service of its suspension, brakes and bearings weeks before....so we had to be in Cairns (23kms away) by 0900 hours just in time to meet the local peak hour traffic.  This is where the Navman GPS came into its own and was able to direct us to the door of the caravan repair shop in the middle of an industrial area of an unfamiliar city.  The rest of that morning was spent pricing the options for a new roof rack system to carry the boat and we eventually settled on a combination of an 'off the shelf' Rhino Bar for the car's cab and an aluminium welded fabricated bar system to be bolted externally over the fibreglass canopy - not cheap but what options did we have?

                               

The new Rig - late May

With all this business attended to, we drove to our caravan park which I had selected and booked online some weeks prior.  At $150/week the Cairns Villa & Leisure Park in Manoora  was the cheapest and reasonably central one I could identify - but it turned out to be anything but a tropical oasis.  The park was inhabited primarily by permanents the majority of which would have been in receipt of welfare payments of some kind.  There appeared to also be a discreet Aboriginal ghetto-like cabin section - very run down.  On the positive side the place was only 10 mins to the CBD and the ablutions and laundry facilities were clean.   Of the 10 or so bona fide travellers, most were intent on going up to The Cape and were waiting for the weather to improve - like us.

We took a walk around the very touristy and backpacker filled CBD and were particularly taken by the new Esplanade developments including their 'horizon' lagoon to keep the visitors happy during the wet stinger season and also during the low tides of Cairns. 

                       

                            

 

               

Cairns CBD

One of the hundreds of Backpacker hostels crowding the CBD

The marvellous Cairns' Markets

During our stay in Cairns we took time to visit an old mate from Darwin who moved to Cairns nearly twenty years previously.  Lyn Flanagan had previously run a dress fabric shop in Darwin and her son had played volleyball with the Roaches under the watchful eye of Greg Barker and Harry.  We had a pleasant lunch with Lyn at a small licensed cafe at Holloways Beach just north of Cairns

We did take a trip up to Kuranda in Cairns' immediate hinterland but found it grossly and tackily commercialised since our last visit 20 odd years ago.  Rather than original and indigenous produce and craft being sold, we were confronted with countless stalls flogging Aussie memorabilia, cheap Indian clothing and jewellery, whacky alternate perfumes and soaps, German sausage & sauerkraut food stall.  The tourist traffic seemed essentially aged and packaged who all came up on the Sky train.  The best part of  the whole experience was the wonderful 13km drive up through the tropical rainforest to the town plus the short walk down to Barron Falls.

                   

Barron Falls

Looking down on Cairns from the Kuranda lookout

Cairns itself  is a little too much to comprehend in a week - from a small regional centre like Darwin, it has become a very cosmopolitan city totally orientated towards tourism to the virtual exclusion of the local populace.....its a shame really...but to see so many of the CBD's streets clogged by tacky souvenir stalls manned by Japanese staff  trying to flog crass product aimed unashamedly towards the young Japanese tourist is rather disappointing. We are uncomfortable in this fairy floss environment and remain here solely to complete our preparations for the Gulf.. To this end we found a Marshes Butcher shop in the northern suburb of Stratfield which had a huge range of specialised cuts; albeit at a price. This shop had been identified to Maria by her Yeppoon golfing guru Trish Talbot, whose brother owned it. We subsequently agreed on a four week meat supply based on some basic cuts of rump, chicken breasts, pork spare ribs and mince which we reckoned could be readily used in a variety of  ways and had it all cryavacked and then very carefully flat-packed into our WAECO fridge/freezer.

Our rather crappy Caravan Park did eventually come good and agreed to store a lot of our excess baggage while we tour the Cape and so we carted up a box of winter clothes and linen, various wedding gifts and the golf clubs - this of course gave us extra room to stow additional food for the next stage  of  our trip.  I also managed to secure a couple of excellent maps of the Cape from the RACQ to supplement Ron & Viv Moons: Cape York - Adventure Guide . I also decided to buy a Snatchem Strap for recovery purposes.  We were also able to obtain up-to-date information on the Bloomfield Track up to Cooktown which is at last open for 4x4 traffic.

At last on 27 May we headed out of Cairns on our way to Mossman.  The road up the coast would have to be one of the most scenic in Australia and is interspersed with tiny hamlets of luxurious self-contained holiday apartments in places such as Clifton Beach, Palm cove, Ellis Beach and, of course Port Douglas where we stopped for lunch after a couple of beers at the historic Courthouse Hotel.

           

Lots of lovely beaches

       

Port D was established in the late 1870s as a port for the local gold mines.  It was named after the then Premier John Douglas.  It has come along way over the past 20 odd years from sleepy town to a major holiday destination for the well-healed A-B demographic.  Macrossan Street's  old shops have been replaced with an endless row of boutiques, jewellery shops, galleries, interior design shops, bars, bistros and top-priced restaurants.  One particularly pleasing feature of the retail landscape of Port D is the total absence of all the fast food franchises eg MacDonald's, KFC, Red Rooster et al - the local residents have banned them.    It was surprising to learn that the town is, like the rest of Qld, doing it tuff - I am sure it is relative.  It was nevertheless fun to stroll around and 'look but not touch'.

                       

Beach at Port Douglas

For the indolent beach goer providing they know when to retire  for the cocktail hour!

Same (4 Mile) Beach at Port Douglas from Flagstaff Hill (I risked serious heart problems by walking up this bloody steep hill to take this shot)

Court House Hotel  established in 1878

After lunch we drove the 20 odd kilometres to Miallo just north of Mossman where Vicki Allen's sister Robyn Weare  lives on the edge of the rainforest.  A wonderful house situated in a picture perfect tropical garden setting.  We had arranged to spend a couple  of nights with Robyn whom we had not seen since we entertained her in Darwin some 10 years prior.  Robyn is a magnificent laid back host so typical of the folk from FNQ.  Robyn and husband Noel had previously been involved with the  Court House Hotel in Port Douglas back before the days Skase and Co stepped in to change a few things.

Robyn's house at Miallo

Hostess Robyn

               

The Gardens

We toured the local Port markets on Sunday morning after being involved in an hour long traffic jam due to the annual triathlon being in progress at the time of our arrival.  Lots of fun stuff to look at in the various stalls.

               

 

               

 

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The old Sugar Wharf near entrance to the new marina

Then Robyn took us to her club for lunch where we had a fine vantage point to watch yachts returning after a local regatta

               

That afternoon, Robyn dragged out her Mah-jong set and requested that Maria show her some of the finer points of the game.  Maria could not believe her ears and revelled at the opportunity to show off her skills of this most complex game with its myriad of rules.  We were still playing as the sun went down.

The next day we visited Mossman Gorge NP - what a place.  The 2.5km walk through the rainforest was magnificent and as Maria noted in the Aboriginal owners Visitors Book - why isn't a fee charged for this rich experience.

       

       

       

We then set off for the car ferry over the Daintree River ($16 one way for car and van) and then drove through the dripping tropical vegetation which lines the Alexander Range for the  30 odd kilometre trip to Cape Tribulation where the bitumen road ceases.  This sublime drive is marred only by the innumerable speed humps placed here and there to prevent the 1000s of overnight trippers from Cairns and Port Douglas from crashing their beetle-sized rent -a-cars en route to one of the myriad of wildly expensive "wilderness retreats or lodges".  I noticed a distinct preference for red renters amongst these agitated drivers.  Another source of distraction are the signs advising drivers and passengers alike to be on the lookout for wondering Cassowaries crossing the road - despite our vigilance we have yet to clap eyes on one of these tall gaily feathered chaps. 

About 10kms short of Cape Trib we pulled up at Noah Beach a National Park bush camping area.  A beautiful spot with only 15 sites which you were supposed to have a pre-booked registration number prior to arrival.  At any rate we chose a site and while I set to to erect the van, Maria drove away to find mobile reception and book our site.  In most Qld NPs you can simply self-register using one of their forms and credit card details or cash.....but not here.  Maria returned to advise that our site was in fact pre-booked for the following couple of days but that we did have the choice of 3 others which on inspection were either being squatted on (no registration sticker in evidence) or were too small for our van-type rig (ie tent sites).  We stayed where we were having at least paid for one night ($10.30) and see what happened.  This beach is glorious and obviously a favourite with those in the know.  Oh yes and the NP Ranger failed to make an appearance either later that afternoon or the next morning.  I countered only 3 NP registration slips on the 15 sites that night - what a farcical bureaucratic arrangement.

      

        

Sunrise at Noah Beach (someone had to get up early for this)

Rather than bugger around any further with trips up the hill to ring Brisbane HQ about further site availability, we decided to push on up the 4x4 Bloomfield Track towards Cooktown.  Now we took advice from a woman manning the Info Centre at Cape Trib who advised us that the track had only recently been re-opened and that our rig would have no difficulties traversing the track provided we took it very carefully.

The 104km Bloomfield track between Cape Trib and Cooktown was constructed amongst much controversy from environmentalists in 1984 and traverses some of the most luxuriant rainforests in Australia.  The first 31kms  follows the contours of  very steep ranges which plummet directly into the Coral Sea below.  It is studded with rough river crossings and some very steep gradients.  (The alternative inland sealed route to Cooktown via Mt Malloy, Palmer River and Lakeland is approx 240kms long.)  Off we went gently easing the van over boulder strewn river crossings, up and down badly scoured hills until we got to the first of the incredibly steep inclines at the Donavan Range at 20% (1:5)  Your average steep incline on a public road rarely exceeds 10%

       

Snaps of the initial stages of the Bloomfield Track

           

This we managed in low range four wheel drive.  Then some more creek crossings until we got to the Cowie Range which to my initial relief had a narrow belt of concrete laid on it.  However, this was much steeper than before with a gradient of 33% (1:3) and this time the combined weight of our rig was just too much for the engine capacity and we came to a halt about half way up this winding steep narrow strip of concrete.  To say that I was scared is an understatement but what could I do - our lowest gear just would not pull us up any further and so somehow I had to manage to reverse the whole rig down to the bottom - some 200m or so....this difficult exercise was made doubly so by the fact that the brakes were barely holding and so we tended to come down crab like half sliding with me valiantly trying to keep the rig on the track and out of the scrub on either side.  I was aware that many vehicles have rolled in similar situations.

Suffice to say we made it and despite a fleeting idea of taking a run at it again, we sadly turned tale and drove back to Cape Trib with a distinct feeling of failure hanging in the air.  At least the new boat rack  and tie downs were given a thorough work out and came out trumps. 

There was nothing for it but to drive back all the way to Mossman and drive up the Mulligan Highway to Cooktown.  This stretch of road is really quite boring and we pulled up at Lakeland Homestead Camp ground.  Lakeland was rather a expensive 'shower stop', the proprietors were not very welcoming and had little knowledge of the roads further north into the Lakeland NP.  Interestingly, the camp ground included a discreet backpacker section which was full of noisy Asian fruit and vegetable pickers/workers who worked on the station's crops.  Just 25 kms before Cooktown one drives through the rather amazing Black Mountain NP which reminds one of the boulders strewn around the town of Dampier WA

                           

We drove into Cooktown at about midday the following day determined to sort out our future directions for the Cape adventure.  Cooktown is a surprisingly small town but still serves as a local port for commercial prawn trawlers and other assorted fishermen. However, I think tourism also plays a major role for the town with 4 caravan parks and similar number of motels.  We chose to stay in the centrally located Cooktown Orchid Travellers Park across the road from the slightly boisterous The Cooktown Hotel circa 1885.  Initially we got some conflicting advice regarding road conditions and closures and have been advised to go direct to the Council Office to make our enquiries and forget the Info Centre.  We'll stay here at least a couple of days and explore its rich history.

What a Welcome!

       

Its all about Lt (err Capt?) James Cook's landing here in 1770 to repair his ship HMS Endeavour

       

Every Queens Birthday weekend the town commemorates the landing with a re-enactment (these craft were previously used thus)

       

 

          

                                                                                                                    Our 'local' pub                                                                     Mick the Miner

 Street scapes of Charlotte (main) Street in Cooktown

           

                                                                                    Musical Poly Boat                                                                Slipping a small schooner

          

Nautical themes in the Endeavour River

One night we braved the onshore breeze and drove up Grassy Hill to capture Cooktown at sunset - it was quite chilly after a wonderful day of temps in the high 20s - I forgot the jumper but I staid till the last vestiges of the bloody sun had sunk over the surrounding hills.

       

The lighthouse atop Grassy Hill

Maria (with jumper) atop Grassy Hill at sunset

       

Endeavour River at Sunset

The bowling club reportedly has the best kitchen in town and we will book to have dinner there on Friday night before leaving town.  During our first full day in town we explored most of the historical sights as well as visited the local council offices for some accurate road condition reports.  We at last got the 'good oil' and it was still not as good as we had hoped with the main Development Road up to the Cape open but with many side roads within NPs and to fishing water holes closed - we'll just have to manage as best as the conditions permit. 

We drove 30kms out to the  famous Lions Den Hotel  for a quick look.  This pub marks the northern end of the Bloomfield and CREB tracks and it is the place one celebrates the achievement of having successfully negotiated either.

       

One is permitted to sign the wall to mark the occasion

A Fruit Tree growing in the pub's beer garden had all the patron's intrigued - it turned out to be a Cannonball Tree (Couroupita guianensis)  and native to the Amazon Basin

Cooktown is, in many respects, a little like a smaller version of Broome - the locals appear to have same laid back attitudes and the climate is about the same.  Their isolation tho is a little more real than for Broome which has become such a trendy tourist mecca - the frontier is still very much in evidence in this town and it certainly has not made too many concessions to accommodate travelling southerners.  However, one of the highlights of our visit was the evening meal we had in the Bowls Club prepared by two Melbourne trained chefs and  brothers - Clint and Heath Oberhauser.  They had worked previously in Groote Eylandt but perhaps more importantly at the Taxi Restaurant in Melb.  The meal was great and very reasonable for my mean purse!

Just as we were about to leave Cooktown, our curiosity was tempted to go look at a reputedly ideal camping location just 17kms outside of town on the Battle Camp Road.  The Endeavour River Escape (www.endeavourriverescape.com.au) camping ground (Camps 6 #1) turned out to be a beauty. Beautiful shady and secluded large sites, firewood supplied, generators permitted and hot showers included in the ablutes plus a magnificent camp kitchen.  It also boasts its own launching ramp.  A pity we learnt about it too late on this occasion.

Tomorrow we leave for the wilds of the Cape and hopefully some good bush camping and successful fishing.  We are not expected to return to Cairns and civilization until mid July.

 

 

 

 

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