Monday, 28 April 2014

Georgetown and free camping at a disused mine site

 Leaving Undara we  continued West along the Savannah Way feeling like pioneers, what with all the cows and bush and people not waving at us... Really it was a fairly subdued drive as we had planned to free camp just west of Georgetown before the big push up to Karumba, and with no gorges or caves to thrill us along the way, the road seemed long to say the least.

Yet again though, this sunburnt country had some surprises in for us.

We sighed into Georgetown, ready to restock the camper with essentials like nappies, bread and meat (what can I say, when you look at cows and dry wood all day, the Afrikanerrrr in you gets to thinking of nothing but braai braai braai). So its a pretty small town in the middle of nowhere, hence they have every right to charge you exorbitant prices for everything, except for the best public pool I've seen in a long while. Having bought the absolute essentials, and hoping for more for less in Normanton the next day, we made our way over to the gorgeous little public park, its free gas BBQs and lovely pool. The park was our first indication that we had crossed that invisible line into the tropics, being all blooming hibiscus and staghorns under the enormous shady trees. And it was bloody hot.

After barbecued sausages (with a side of chillies for Caesar who had found a bush of the little red hot ones in the park. Ouch!), we all lounged about in the sparkling pool and commented on how this tiny little town in the middle of Queensland was an oasis in all the dust and bush. (Alright "oasis" is probably a bit rich, but it was an awesome spot after a hot and long day's drive.)

We drove a further 20 kms on to 'The Chimney', a spot recommended to us by a number of

 Nomads and endorsed by Georgetown locals alike as lovely. And it did look that way, though disconcertingly it was devoid of any other people camping there, whilst a pretty big 'Construction Site. No camping' sign was. But, it was kind of turned the other way and had sort of fallen over, so ignoring it and common sense, we found a spot to set up for the night.

It really is a nice spot, with a beautiful billabong and big shady trees. We fed the kids, put them to bed and settled down for some fireside star gazing... Or rather some settling down, peering into the dark and jumping at the slightest sound. We are such pack animals- it's nice to have a bit of space between you and your fellow man,  but when faced with being completely alone, we crave some company. So said the true townie.

Anyway, we awoke the next day having made it through the night, unmolested by bunyips and packed up for Fiela's Gulf of Carpentaria Mecca... Ay Karumba!

Friday, 25 April 2014

Undara Lava Tubes and campground

200kms of dirt road stretched between us and the Undara Lava Tubes when we left Porcupine Gorge, and having done not an ounce of taping up to reduce the amount of bull dust finding its inevitable way into the campertrailer, wayward cattle dotting the beautiful bush scenery and the promise of few cars at best on the journey, I was apprehensive to say the least. 

The Braai Master teaches his craft at Undara.
But I am slowly realising that even though there are few in the way of human inhabitants in the Outback, almost everyone is exceedingly friendly and thanks to everyone (around 10 cars) we met on the road giving us a cheery wave, suddenly that feeling of isolation dissipated. We felt so much camaraderie with our fellow travellers that by the time we got to the Savannah Way (the main highway connecting Cairns and Darwin), Fiela in particular was miffed (he who becomes miffed quite often when he feels he is being ignored “So-and-so NEVER texts me”… please insert an eye roll here from me and almost all our friends) that people in this ‘populated’ part of Queensland had stopped returning his wave. Lucky us, the turn off to Undara was only a few kilometres down the highway before we turned back onto a dirt road and people who wave.

Descending into the gully where the tubes lay.

Anyway, the Undara Lava Tubes are a series of rock caves (tubes) which were formed over 40,000 years ago when a massive volcano (more like an abscess with different outlet points with lava oozing out than a spectacular explosion) gushed out lava for 30 years or so. The lava flowed into gullys and rivers, cooled on top forming the ‘roof’ while hot lava continued to flow through the tubes. When it stopped it was like a tap, the lava ran out and the tubes remained. You can only see the tubes by taking a tour with the Undara Experience which not only runs the tours but has a pretty cool eco-resort nearby the site. It seems that the family owning the resort had acquired the property in the 1800s, found the tubes and in some fabulous negotiations with the government, managed to gain the exclusive rights to the tourism aspect of this national park. Go monopolistic capitalism! 

Entrance to the first lava tube, The Archway.

Upon checking in I was told yet again that we were ‘just 5 days’ too early for the start of the ‘season’ which was annoying in that the girl doing the check in dithered around working out this that and the other (“It’s my first day back since last season”) but excellent in that only a few others were camping and we had the pick of the sites. The camping area is shady, every plot has a built in fire pit (yay!) and they also have lots of other accommodation options.

A lovely oasis after a hot day's walk.
 The pool was beautiful and the bar area was pretty amazing as well with a big open area and stage looking out over the bush (they do a blues and opera festival out here- not at the same time!). It was so good we ended up staying at the pub for dinner, talking to a couple from Cairns and watching as the kids played around throwing sticks into the massive communal fire pit. As with most Uys Adventures, the 'funny' point of the evening occurred when we got back to the camper and realised that the only evidence of the frozen chicken we’d left defrosting on the BBQ was the plastic bag it had been wrapped in. Woops.

Camp. Note half-clothed children.

The next morning (having located the leftover chicken, surrounded by satiated looking crows and currawongs and binning it) we went on our lava tube tour. Our guide was a bit of a Crocodile Dundee Wannabe with an attitude (having managed to get pretty much the entire tour group offside with some unsavoury comments about ex-wives amongst others) but incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the lava tubes and the bush in general. 

Looking out of the first tube.

The second tube where Croc Dundee was feeling so outrageously fit and athletic.

The caves are beautiful and boardwalked about 200 metres in, with tiny little bats flitting in and out. Aboriginals avoided the tubes like the plague because of ‘evil spirits’ which can possibly be explained due to the high concentration of carbon monoxide found in them. Tree roots (where the carbon monoxide from the air is expelled) hang down from the ceiling of the tubes and depending on the time of year can increase the carbon monoxide to a lethal level. We couldn’t actually go into one of the caves due to the high levels of carbon monoxide (most self ingratiating comment of the tour: “…We usually test it with a lighter but I can tell just by my breathing. You know, because I’m so fit.”). It was well worth the money, and despite Caesar’s apparent dislike of dark caves and Marguerite’s disturbing fascination with bats, we really enjoyed it. 

Seed pod on the crater walk.

You can see the rim of the crater in front. The pimple far left is another lava outlet.

 We spent the next day doing a few bush walks around the campsite and one around the rim of an extinct volcano, and one horror where we were attacked by mosquitoes so large they could f*#k chickens, ticks, took the long way mistakenly and Marguerite fell over grazing every limb she owns... and swimming in the pool and chasing wallabies, kangaroos and currawongs. We’d love to come back for the Undara Experience Blues Weekend and had a great time here in general. On our last morning, we trekked a few hundred metres away from the resort for the ‘Bush Breakfast’ complete with bacon stealing kookaburras.

Lava outlets (pimples) across the Undara horizon line.

Pretty-Faced Wallaby.

Fun in the pool.

Bird. (???)

The bush breakfast site. Beautiful amongst the gums.

Bush Breakfast sans kookaburras.

Eastern Grey Kangaroos.

Our bush adventure was to continue next in Karumba, the “Outback by the Sea”, so we bid farewell to Undara and hello to non-waving drivers as we made our way even further West…

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Lonely Planet: Australia

Not just for backpackers, Lonely Planet continue to churn out excellent travel reference books. Its writers’ often give a reliable depiction of available accommodation, tourist attractions and eating options, and if you’ve bought a specialised area edition (Far North Queensland as opposed to the more general Australia) the amount of detail provided for even the smallest of destinations is quite astounding. We like to use it as our first point of call in getting an idea of what the region or town we’re visiting is all about. Lonely Planet is also excellent in suggesting places to eat and what you’ll be in for at that establishment. Fiela and I can’t remember the number of times we’ve walked into a café, eaten something really ordinary and then read in the Lonely Planet later we were 100 metres away from a place charging similar prices for much better food. I hate paying for bad food, so on this case alone I think it’s
definitely a worthwhile purchase. However, having said all of this, you are taking on board someone else’s opinion of a destination- you’ll only work out if you’re going to enjoy it (or not)  if you go yourself…

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Porcupine Gorge and how meat ants can be used as a great disciplinary tool for children.

We left Winton after the quickest pack up ever, keen to depart the flies and what had been a mostly trying stop on our trip, but not before we popped into the bakery to have a quick finger bun and coffee with the local inbreds. Nice.

The drive up to Hughenden along the Kennedy Developmental Rd was pleasant, travelling through sparse grazing land interspersed with the odd driveway apparently promising the homestead of a cattle station at its end. You feel the isolation of these far flung areas very acutely and like real ‘townies’, felt ourselves wondering when we would catch sight of another car or even a roadtrain: we saw five vehicles in just over 200kms. Driving under the vast open blue sky, through light green countryside with just a straight road unfolding in front of us, we couldn’t help feeling that better days were ahead.

"Brolox" Fiela and Marguerite's pet globe spider.
Many a happy  (and disturbing) hour was spent catching
grasshoppers to chuck in his web and watch as he spun
them into his next meal.
And they were. We stepped out of the car in Hughenden and our faces lit up- no flies! Then went to the FJ Holden Café for what Lonely Planet described as ‘excellent’ food. They weren’t far wrong, though the waitress could have warned us when we ordered the ‘FJ Super Burger’ that it involved everything a normal good hamburger would have (like pineapple and beetroot) but with bacon, egg and a steak. It was outrageous and delicious.

We picked up a few supplies and headed out for Porcupine Gorge for 4 nights of communing with nature. And commune we did, on the road, with some cows. Lots of cattle were grazing, and I’d been trying to conjure up some brakes on the passenger side along with a white knuckle grip on the door every time we came near any close to the road. Fiela on the other hand was taking a fairly nonchalant attitude to the stupid beasts until two came running toward us in a narrow gully while we were doing 60kmh. Those cows almost ended up as FJ Super Burgers themselves and I pumped out enough adrenaline to jumpstart an overdose victim.

The top of Porcupine Gorge.

Marguerite "the leader" on the way down. Not to be repeated on the way back up!

We arrived at the gorge, pleased to see there were only a few flies and even fewer people. After a frustrating set up involving chocks, the spirit level and a huge meat ant nest, we settled in for a beer with one of the other people camping there. Unfortunately he was a disgruntled Hughenden Council worker, so while he had some great information about the area, he also liberally sprinkled it with some vitriol directed at his fellow employees. Then we met the one other person camping, who we realised within a few minutes was drinking his way around Australia with a dog called Slushie.

We got rid of those two thanks to the kids and bath and bed time, and sat out watching some unbelievable stars.

Fiela with The Pyramid in the background.

The campground is at the top, and we didn’t realise how high up we were until the next morning when (after watching a flock of around 30 black cockatoos screech their way over us) we made our way to the beginning of the walk down into the gorge. It is a beautifully crafted landscape, all gumtree coated top, red hued cliffs and the beckoning murmur of water over rock bouncing up the walls toward us. The Uys Huis was in love with this part of the Outback already.

Rock hopping and creek swimming fun.

It was pretty hot and the 1.2km descent into the gorge steep so by the time we made it to the creek running at the bottom, it was swim time. Marguerite had a fantastic time exploring little rock pools and hopping between big boulders, and Fiela managed to find one of those magical rapids which is just like a spa. The water was lovely and while it was fairly murky, it was also a beautiful temperature. The hike back up to the campsite was a little harrowing thanks to Miss M’s version of the Crying Games (quote of the day “I don’t want to be the leader I just want a red drink and my moviiiieeeee!!!!!”), while Caesar fell asleep in his carrier, blissfully tuning out to the drama screaming its way up the stairs.
Marguerite, ready to tackle the walk she "never want(ed) to do ... again" yesterday.

The Pyramid.

We went back down every day for the rest of our time at Porcupine Gorge, having found an awesome swimming hole directly below the Pyramid, a huge rock formation in the shape of its namesake. Happy days were spent exploring, swimming, marvelling and thanking those beautiful stars that we had the entire place to ourselves.

Swimming hole fun...

This waterhole was a few metres deep and directly below The Pyramid.

Exploring the other side. Clearly we had been to too many museums of late, as Marguerite proceeded to give us a "tour" of this "very very old rock place- now don't touch ANYTHING or you'll have to get off the tour. See this rock hole? It's very very old..."

Apart from the slow down when cows are grazing by the side of the road thing, there were a few other lessons learnt over the four nights spent here:

·    Meat ants swarm
Fiela and his mini-me.
Or so Marguerite found out when told repeatedly to leave one of the nests alone but of course, couldn’t help herself: she poured some water in and the meat ants swarmed up her legs, giving her a few little bites along the way. This lesson also proved to be quite the disciplinary tool, with Fiela threatening a few times to put her back on the nest.
·    BBQ tools are not fireproof
Or so Fiela learned when he heated up the Baby Weber for a roast, inconveniently forgetting the cleaning wire brush and BBQ tool were inside. Our roast also had a faint plasticky taste, but we all seem fine so clearly no real heavy toxins were consumed. On the plus side he did manage to pick up a brand new set in Georgetown a few days later for $1.
·    Sometimes it’s better to give up and try again tomorrow.

In one day I forgot to bring the computer along to a café we specifically went to so we could use the wifi, put chocks under the wrong wheels and therefore made the camper even less level, made dinner for the kids but forgot about Fiela and I (potato chips for dinner again) and generally had a complete shocker. I managed to get my shit together the next day, clearly proving this last point.

The road on the way out of Porcupine Gorge up to the Undara Lava Tubes....

Porcupine Gorge did more than give us a few simple lessons though. It allowed us to reset ourselves after the Winton debacle and spend time together in the most constructive way possible: in a campertrailer, just us, the bush and a beautiful little gorge.

Friday, 11 April 2014

"Girt: the Unauthorised History of Australia" by David Hunt

Fellow teachers take note- your Year 7/8/9/anytime lesson on early Australian history need never ever be boring and spit ball inducing again. What a breath of fresh air Hunt's history on the 'discovery' of Australia and the apparent 'civilising' effects of the British on this fledgling colony are. From the character assassination of almost all the fathers of our nation to some pretty funny foot notes including references to the likes of Britney and (unfortunately) Lindsay Lohan, this is a funny and enlightening read no matter how much you hated history. Get it, and be girt.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Winton and Dinosaurs

Aaah Winton. How you have vexed me.

We have been on the road for almost a month and this place was the first (and hopefully last) location I’ve ever had a thought process involving packing up and just heading home, tail between our collective legs. But we didn’t and we haven’t, so read on for tales of heat, flies and the occasional dinosaur.

The road between Longreach and Winton is picturesque in a sparse grassland and roadtrain kind of way. Fiela wanted to kill someone after the force of a roadtrain going in the opposite direction knocked his extended side view mirror in for the fifth time. Then I wanted to kill someone when we got out of the car at Winton and realised our fly problem had gotten worse. When everyone in the main street is wearing a fly net over their head, you know you’re going to have a problem.

Fly country.

We parked at the Tattersalls Hotel Caravan Park, which pleased Caesar no end as it was next to the highway and therefore trucks and roadtrains. It was fine, though the sulphur (read rotten egg) smell coming from the water was pretty full on. So it was hot, there were an unholy number of flies, everything smelt like eggs and things just really didn’t improve much from there.

The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum

We drove the 20kms or so out to the Australian Age ofDinosaurs Museum, which is situated at the top of a ‘jump-up’ (rocky outcrop). A farmer found some bones on his property in the 1990s and realizing they weren’t sheep, emu, dingo or anything else for that matter; he sent them off to the QLD Museum for analysis. Turns out he was a bit of a dinosaur boffin and spent his few leisure hours helping to build the AAOD once it was confirmed that the bones were indeed part of a dinosaur. They’ve found a few different bones of dinosaur, though they’ve only ever recovered 65% of a full skeleton (apparently you only need 35% to be able to lay claim that you have found a dinosaur). This is significant as apparently prior to this it was thought there were no dinosaurs in Australia.

View from the top of  the jump-up at AAOD

Dinosaur bones, wrapped in alfoil, paper then plastercast waiting to be processed. They have a five year backlog of bones to be properly 'unearthed', and some people spend weeks volunteering to do just that.

Hoping for less flies but getting more, we went in and were directed to the first part of the tour. This occurred in a shed where Ben, a trainee was practicing his tour spiel on us. This became quite amusing once his supervisor joined us and shadowed the rest of the tour… so of course the kids tried their best to throw poor Ben off by running amok. He was unfrazzled and was really quite a sweetie, though the little toad who took the second part of the tour was lucky in two respects: 1. He didn’t have a supervisor watching him have a melt down when the kids didn’t make appropriate oooh and aaah sounds when he spouted his amazing wisdom about dinosaurs and 2. We’ve been trying to curb our (OK, my) language after Marguerite started muttering “Bloody flies!” everytime she stepped out of the van, and didn’t want to set a bad example by giving this trainee a dressing down. The exhibit is interesting, but my children weren’t.

Some bones are easily identified before they are preserved in the alfoil and plastercast combo...
... and some aren't.

Ben and Marguerite with a partially processed bone. It's a dinosaur vertebrae, with the white thing a vertebrae from a cow.

Fossils found from around Winton, which was once at the bottom of a sea.

Fossilised shark teeth found around Winton.

The processing centre.

Toad seen trying to get in photo at left...
Otherwise the bones they've found of this dinosaur with thick wire replacing those missing.

The dinosaur 'Banjo'... the one they've found the most bones for.

What we wanted to do with the kids after this museum visit.

Random emus.

So what would most intelligent people do? They’d avoid another museum type thing, but no, not us. We are clearly a bit stupid.

Even the bins in Winton are from dinosaurs...

Fun in the main street of Winton.

That afternoon we went to the Waltzing Matilda Centre, which if we hadn’t been to the Longreach museums a few days prior probably would’ve been great, but apart from a stirring explanation of the song given in a life size fake billabong, none of us were particularly taken with it. There’s a lot of history and what life was like when Banjo Patterson was alive, lots of old stuff (artefacts for the nerds) and another run down of the Qantas story. Unfortunately it was a complete waste of money for us, Marguerite and especially Caesar (luckily they got in for free!). But we’d done it, probably in record time, and decided to celebrate by eating out with the flies (the barflies were sensibly at the bar) and in the heat at the Tattersalls Hotel. The food was pretty standard for pub grub out this way- the steak was excellent, the vegetables were of the frozen variety and the garlic mash was plentiful. We went back to the van, put the kids to bed and sat up talking to a couple from Brisbane late into the night (about 11pm).

Feeling the history.

Marguerite struggling with the amusing billboard and your imposed face concept.

Caesar defiling some of the old stuff.

Lark Quarry.

Cool moveable model dinosaur.

The next day we trekked out to Lark Quarry, a 220km round trip on dirt road, feeling nothing but gladness that this would be our last ‘educational’ experience for a while. We got there just in time for the 10am tour with Gary. What a breath of fresh air. This experienced, local and friendly tour guide endured our noisy children with a smile and was happy to ‘get off track’ from his informational ‘speech’ (unlike some other trainee guides who have been aforementioned). Lark Quarry is the only evidence of a dinosaur stampede in the world. The stampede, which happened around 90million years ago is now enclosed in an environmentally controlled ‘shed’, though Gary told us how when they uncovered it in the 1960s, anyone could and did walk over it. Then they put a roof over it to try and protect it from the rain, which the cows and kangaroos thought was really kind as it’s hard to find shade out here. It was then fenced, but the stampede was then set on fire by a welding spark causing black plastic to melt onto it. Finally in 2002 an actual enclosed building was erected with some nifty looking stone walls, one of which promptly collapsed onto the stampede before actual walls that could pass a building inspection were put up. Luckily, when the section containing the stampede was first excavated a silicon mould was taken, preserving the integrity of the footprints for eternity, even if the site hasn’t been. It was really interesting and we did a quick walk around, admiring the stark landscape, and thinking that perhaps our luck had changed.

The stampede... you can see the predator dinosaur marks in a line on the right.
The rock shelves show how far down they excavated to get to the stampede.

Close up of the big dinosaur and then the scattering of the smaller ones. Below is a better explanation..

Beautiful colours at Lark Quarry.

Back to Winton and the flies, took the kids to the pool for the afternoon in an attempt to escape the searing heat, only to be told this was the only day of the year it was closed because of the school swimming carnival.

 Winton 3, the Uys Huis 1.

Winton isn't all that bad, having a very lovely main street, but it was definitely time to get away from it all. Next stop, Porcupine Gorge.