East Coast Oddessy

Trip Start Aug 16, 2005
Trip End Apr 14, 2006

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Where I stayed
Castaways Backpackers, Cairns, Queensland
Wonga Beach caravan park
Cairns Villa & Leisure Park
Atherton Leisure Park
Paronella Park camping, Mena Creek
Mission Beach council campsite

Flag of Australia  , Queensland,
Thursday, January 26, 2006

Flying out of Alice Springs we passed over hundreds of miles of red earth with dead straight roads/tracks crisscrossing the land, then the ground disappeared under cloud. When we dropped out of the clouds on landing in Cairns, the landscape couldn't have been more different - mountains with a dark green coating of forest next to the Pacific Ocean, blue and shimmering.

The temparature in Cairns was slightly lower than Alice, but because of the humidity it didn't give us any relief. Cairns took us by surprise by being so tropical. It's the start of the rainy season so the clouds are low, the warm rain drips from the sky and nothing seems to dry properly. We heard that there was a cyclone offshore forecast to hit any day.

Originally we had planned to drive down the East Coast of Australia from Cairns all the way to Sydney. But, as we started to research more into this classic route we decided that in the time we had (5 weeks) we just couldn't do justice to it. We booked a flight from Brisbane back to Sydney instead, so will be exploring coastal Queensland and a little bit of northern NSW.

We also planned to do this drive in a campervan. This turned out to be more expensive than anticipated, but having our hearts set on the freedom and flexibility a camper gave us, we decided to go for it anyway. We didn't plump for the cheapest backpacker van available (as you cannot stand up in them), but chose the lowest quote for a proper high-top van. However, when we picked it up from the hire company we were a bit shocked! The van appears to be mainly held together with duct tape, there is a missing window in the roof and it has seen better (and cleaner) days. However, we were assured that it was mechanically sound and off we set on our oddessy!

We drove north out of Cairns initially to explore the rainforest up towards Cape Tribulation. It felt just like we were back in Fiji - long sandy beaches with palms, banana plantations, fields of sugar cane. We drove up into the mountains and visited the huge multi-levelled Barron Gorge waterfall. After heavy rain the equivalent of an Olympic swimming pool comes over the top every second. To get to the viewing platform there was a raised boardwalk from which Angie managed to drop her sunglasses down onto the forest floor 15m below. Refusing to give them up as lost Angie sent Darren down to retrieve them, but as he was only wearing flip-flops he didn't get very far. Angie then decided to brave it herself and started descending through the undergrowth - it was proper jungle with creeper vines that snagged her clothes, spiderwebs strung between bushes, rotting logs that disintergrate when stepped on and a ground covering of deep leaf litter and slippery rocks. Angie gets past the muddy bank that stopped Darren by sliding down it on her bottom. Then there is much shrieking and whimpering as she negotiates the gully and scrambles up the bank on the other side, drawing a crowd of onlookers up on the boardwalk where Darren is trying to direct her/keep her calm. Just when she had given up and was making her way back, she finds the sunglasses and is very pleased about it. On her return to the safety of the elevated boardwalk, badly shaken but triumphant, Darren refused to hug her because of all the mud and sweat. Charming!

After that unplanned excitement, our next stop was a Bat Rescue centre. We saw one bat have a wee (they have miniature but perfectly formed versions of human male willies - something to do with the fact that they are much closer genetically to humans than most other mammals maybe?) while hanging by his wing tips from the keepers arm! We also adopted a tiny orphaned baby bat who we christened Dizzy. We did a circular rainforest walk in Mossman Gorge, saw some gigantic butterflies and were amazed at how deafening the cicades and crickets can be. That night we found a lovely campsite shaded by huge trees right on a tropical beach. It was perfect, or would have been if we could have cooled-off in the water. As well as visiting this area in rainy season, we also coincided with jellyfish season! There are lots of different types, the most well known being the box jellyfish with 3m long tentacles, and they can all give you an excruitiatingly painful sting that can be fatal. One type, even more lethal than the box jellyfish is the Irukandji. It's tiny, virtually invisible in the water and when you get stung you hardly notice it. It's only after 30 minutes that you'll start sweating, shivering, feeling intense panic and require a visit to a hospital. Nasty. However, it's still torture not to be able to swim when it is so sticky and humid and there are beautiful beaches everywhere.

This area is the only place on earth where two World Heritage zones meet - the Wet Tropics and the Great Barrier Reef. This means that the rainforest comes right down to the beach and the driving is pretty spectacular. The famous area round here is Cape Tribulation, but as more rain was forecast we decided not to make the long drive to see the Cape itself. Instead, Angie took a cruise on the Daintree river in order to see saltwater crocodiles in the wild - it wasn't the best time of year as it is so hot they spend most of their time submerged - but in amongst the mangroves she did see the rear end of a 3m female nesting (digging up the sand to keep her eggs cool) and 2 or 3 smallish males. Darren on the other hand wanted a guarantee of seeing some whoopers, so we headed to a wildlife park where we make it in time for the 'crocodile attack' show! You can see a video of the keeper pestering a 5m male croc to please the crowd. We also went to koala feeding and although we weren't allowed to hold one, we did get to touch - they feel lovely, like velvet. Koalas, apparently, give nothing back to the environment they live in - they have no predators, do not support any other life and their poo isn't even good as fertiliser, so it is a mystery why they evolved and have not become extinct yet. It was here also, that we got to see a Cassowary for first time and hear their amazing sub-woofer call (like a really deep bass noise). These birds are about the same height as Angie, with black bodies, long legs with huge reptile like claws, bright blue and red plummage on their little heads with a turkey-like throat hanging down, and to top it all, a dinasour-like horn protruding from the top of their head. They look like they are a relic from the past and should have been extinct a long time ago - they are gravely endangered with it now.

Turning around to head south, we diverted to the Atherton Tablelands - a very long winding road took us up into the clouds and a heavy rain started that continued for the rest of the day and all through that night. We stopped at a tranquil crater lake which was teeming with fish and turtles and Angie swam in the rain. There was no difference between the air and water temperature - perfect! Trees are the big attractions around here: 7m circumference Kauri pines, huge red cedar trees and 600 year old fig trees. That night at our campsite there were parakeets flying between the trees.

The next morning we visited a volcanic pipe (a huge bottomless shaft that formed when volcanic gases exploded out of the earth's crust) which has now filled mostly with water but there are still 70m of cavernous hole that visitors can gaze down into. Then we 'did' a waterfall circuit which included the famous Millaa Milla falls.

After getting back to the van after our waterfall trek I discover a leech trying to attach itself to my ankle. Aargh! I hate the thought of leeches, even though they are pretty harmless it's the fact that their heads stick in you if you try to pull them out, ugh. It had been my one minor fear when trekking in South America, and surviving so far leech-free, I had got complacent. I quickly flicked it off and as it wriggled angrily on the floor I tryed to stamp on it and eventually kicked it out of the van. Phew, panic over. Angie checked her feet and ankles and declared them leech-free. She went off on a short trek while I stayed in the van so as a precaution she put some socks on. I settled down, opened a bag of crisps and started reading. Just then I saw something out of the corner of my eye. It took about a 100th of a second to realise that a leech had attached itself to my little finger and by the look of it had been feeding on me for some time, as it was 4 times the size of the one I flicked off my ankle. Shit...Leech attack!! Don't panic!! Everybody stay calm. I rushed to the sink to wash it off. Of course this did no good at all and I then remembered the old 'burn them off' trick which I've seen on many a survival show. I grabbed the lighter and torched the critter, which immediately dropped off and washed down the plughole. I took a deep breath and motioned to return to my seat when I saw the leech I kicked out earlier making its way up the step into the van (they move in the most disgusting creepy fashion). Nooooooo it's all too much!

Angie arrived back half an hour later and I told her of my leech attack. She looked mildly freaked out and this changed to outright panic when she fouind a leech wriggling up her sock trying to get a purchase on her skin. We got it off and checked for more but she seemed to be all clear. It is only when we are driving along 10 minutes later and Angie feels a little pinch on the skin of her ankle that we knew something was wrong. She managed to pull over without crashing and I got the lighter out and tried to get it off without giving her 3rd degree burns. We get out of there as fast as we can and vow to give the rainforest walks a miss for a while...
(By the way the leeches were only about an inch long but horrible none the less!)

I haven't got anything to add except that I saw a long black snake slithering across the path during my walk which is more exciting than leeches I think!

That afternoon we discover a hidden gem off the main highway - Paronella Park - built by a Spaniard in the early 1900s. He created a series of castle-like spanish-style buildings next to a waterfall and creek, planted 7000 trees in the grounds and powered his creation with his own private hydro-electric plant (the first ever in Queensland). He didn't have any building experience - and it shows - but he was very imaginative and hard working. He used poured concrete reinforced with railway sleepers which are now rusting, the concrete crumbling in the humidity and the buildings being reclaimed by the plants. However, this makes it feel very romantic and secretive. The park went into decline after his death, several floods and a fire but was resurrected in the early 90s by an enthusiastic Ozzie couple. They have tried to halt the decline and save the buildings and park. We could camp overnight for free on our admission price so we spent many hours in the grounds. We had a guided tour which took us down the grand staircase, along lovers walk, through the tunnel of love and explained the whole fascinating history of the place. The tunnel of love is actually a dark and damp place that it home to numerous huntsman spiders and a colony of micro-bats who cluster together on the ceiling. (see photo). These are tiny, tiny bats - no bigger than the tip of your little finger and the babies are even smaller.

We went back in the evening for an after dark tour and the owner gave us some more history while we spotted phosperescent fungus, frogs, saw the castle and fountains lit up and watched the eels in the lake go into a feeding frenzy.

On to Mission Beach, a very chilled beach town which joyously had a stinger net (a large anti-jellyfish net making an area off water off the beach a little bit safer). Hurray - at last we could swim in the gorgeously warm water - we stayed in until we got wrinkly.

Mission Beach is famous for being the place to spot wild cassowaries, so before leaving we drove out to do another rainforest walk (having forgotten our pledge after the leeches!). However, we had just left the carpark and started down the track when we saw an adult coming towards us up the path. Cassowaries can be aggressive and we'd been suitably freaked out by tales of them disembowling people when threatened. We stayed very still and watched it walking along the path. Then a chick appeared behind. The males look after the babies until they grow up - all the female does is lay the eggs. We start to back off as they came towards us, and Angie even scurried back to the safety of the van, but they both seemed very relaxed and we followed them for ages as they pecked around the carpark. We are ashamed to say that we didn't bother going on the walk after that!

The drive down to Townsville took us between rainforest covered mountains and mangrove coastal areas, past field after field of sugar cane and mango plantations. Although Townsville is a large town, all the urban areas here feel like they are constantly trapped in a Sunday morning - the high streets have a small handful of people wandering around and the shops are mainly empty. It's all very laidback and slow and far removed from the hectic crush of English high streets.

We did a day trip to Magnetic Island off the coast from Townsville. Having to fit in our activities with the bus timetable around the island, we did a very rushed walk through dry rainforest (this sounds like a contradiction in terms but is what this type of habitat is called) in the morning up to an old fort with a great views up and down the stretch of mainland coast and across the island. We then swam in another stinger net off a big sweeping beach, completely ignorant of the fact that only 2 weeks previously a young boy was badly stung by a jelly fish that had sneaked its way into the very same net. We only found this out when reading the newspaper after we'd swum, but that was probably the best way! In the afternoon, Angie fulfilled a long-running ambition/fantasy when we rode horses bareback in the sea. It was somewhat spoilt by the fact that we had to wear stinger suits (basically a lycra catsuit!) but the horses seemed to enjoy being in the water and we both learnt to stand up on our horse's back. The swim was the culmination of a two hour ride through the bush where we saw countless wallabies and Darren managed to master rising trot for a few seconds at least!

Before we left Maggie (as the island is affectionately referred to) we did another walk onto a headland at sunset and listened to all the weird and wonderful bird calls that abound at this time of the day.

Looking at a map we realised how small a dent we'd made into the total distance we have to cover. Time to get some long driving hours in...
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