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Wonders of The Top End

Imagine a giggly girl, hopping on the spot, clapping her hands in glee with a big shiny smile on her face.  Think cheerleader.  There’s no way I’d be caught dead doing that, but it does reflect how I felt coming back to the Top End.  For those who don’t know, I lived in Darwin for two years (1990-1991) and have fond memories of all the places there.  Be prepared for a bit of “Years ago it used to blah, blah, blah.”

There’s not a lot to see or do between Devil’s Marbles and Mataranka.  We broke the trip up with an overnight stay at Daly Waters.  What a cracker of a pub!  This place was full of personality with an overwhelming amount of memorabilia. My favourite thing was the thong tree.  We’ve blown a few pluggers on our trip and it was such a fun idea for that one good leftover thong.  The sign said:

Due to the introduction of exotic species such as Reef Sandals and the Swedish Masseur, the native thong, which can be found throughout Australia, has experienced a drastic reduction in numbers over the last decade.  We at Daly Waters are attempting a captive breeding program.  If you would like to make a donation and assist us by increasing the gene pool, please see bar staff.

Just after we left we read in the news that the pub was up for sale.  I hope that whoever buys it continues to collect, coins, thongs, hats and number plates.

I’d been to Mataranka Thermal Pools in 1991, as I was travelling to my next posting.  This time around we decided to stay at Bitter Springs.  Many other tourists recommended it over Mataranka and we’d have to agree.  Bitter Springs is still in a very natural state apart from a few stairs that have been built to get in and out of the water.  Early in the morning, you’ll see the steam rising off the water.  The water isn’t too hot either, more like a pleasant bath temperature.  Best bet is to grab a pool noodle, get in and float down to the last set of stairs.  Hop out and do the ‘I’m wet and it’s colder out than in jog’ to the start and do it all over again.  The current is gentle but those deciding it’d be better to swim back than get cold walking back seem to find it an effort to go against the current.

Mataranka Thermal Springs
Mataranka Thermal Springs

Mataranka Thermal Spring has a lot more infrastructure than I remember.  I only remember one concrete wall but it could have been two, anyhow these days there is a concrete wall on both sides, with steps, ledge and paved walkways.  It was also packed with people!  We are smack bang in the middle of the NT school holiday period and grey nomad season, so you can’t really expect anything less but I do find the crowds off-putting.  I got in with the rest of the mob, just to say I was there again, but got out shortly after imagining the worst with so many people in such a confined space… in warm water… with suspected poor bladder control.

The creek either side of Mataranka is pretty small and during the war, soldiers enlarged a section to form the pool.  Which was then only for use by officers. Typical!  The landowner opened it up to tourists after that and in the 70’s it became part of NT’s National Parks.  Craig and the kids had a good time there but we all agree Bitter Springs was better.

The new campground pool area
The new campground pool area

I have a really great memory of visiting Katherine Gorge with a group of friends and was very much looking forward to going again. The campground is no longer down near the water of the first gorge.  Because of a couple of previous floods, they moved the campground to higher ground well away from the water.  The new campground, which was nice and had a great pool, could’ve been anywhere.  This was one of the biggest changes from the past.  Okay that and the fact that I was 25 years younger, with a bunch of like minded singles, no kids, more campground pranks, more alcohol and more time in the water.

I imagined being down by the waters edge with the family, jumping in the water and canoeing. Instead it is a turfed area of little activity.  The only time you see people there, is when they are lined up to go on a boat tour.  No canoeing in the first gorge either as they suspected a salt water croc was in the area.  This was based on a photo from the air and traps had been in place for two years with no results. I guess you can’t be too cautious when it comes to Crocs but it was a shame  we couldn’t paddle in the river.

The only way to explore the gorges was to go on one of the boat tours.  The guide was super informative, funny and very open with information.  The Jawoyn People were given back the land around Katherine Gorge in 1989.  It is now called Nitmiluk.  They are doing an excellent job in partnership with National Parks at welcoming, involving and educating tourists.  It was so very different from other places where tourists aren’t allowed to swim in that water hole, or climb that rock, or know the legend and why you can’t take a picture.  On this tour, tourists were encouraged to take photos of everything and many stories and legends were told.  When we got back to a large pool in the second gorge for a swim we were told “the adults of the tribe would not swim in this water due to their Dreamtime legends, but you white fellas can!”  It’s a tricky balance.  It’d be great to be able to experience everything fully, yet many tourists are disrespectful of the place and we later heard about a site at the Bungle Bungle that has been closed to the public because of looting.

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Kapok Bush

One of the main things I’ve found fascinating about traditional culture is how their stories not only teach morals and tribal law, but also teach about living on the land and caring for the environment.  In a previous blog, I mentioned how they use animal totems to prevent overfishing or hunting of animals and on this tour I learned how they take note of changes in the environment with calendar plants.  One of these is the Kapok bush, at the time of the tour it had yellow flowers atop long skinny branches with little to no leaves.  This meant that freshwater crocs have eggs inside them.  When the seed pods grow it means the crocs are laying their eggs, and when the pods open to reveal their fluffy white seeds, the crocs are hatching.  Throughout our time in the NT and northern WA, I would notice the Kapok plant and get excited at the different stages of the croc’s lifecycle.

Jedda's Leap
Jedda’s Leap

Nitmiluk also has a link to the film industry.  There is a sheer cliff face in the gorge that is called Jedda’s Leap.  The story of two young aboriginals who fell in love but were forbidden to marry due to having the same skin names.  They leapt to their death in favour of living apart.  This was made into a movie in 1955 called Jedda.  The other film was Rogue, which was about a crocodile that was terrorising tourists.  I haven’t seen it but apparently the only good thing about that movie was the scenery.

We climbed to the top of the gorge to see the sunrise and stood on the lookout platform in the predawn light.  25 years ago, there was no platform and I distinctly remember standing close to the edge of the cliff and feeling the pull of gravity.  I’m not scared of heights but I do remember thinking I’d just go over the edge without any say in it!  Anyhow, we are standing there as the world starts waking up around us and I heard a bird call down in the gorge.  It sounded something like “War, war, wark!”.  I said “Shhh, listen”.  As it sounded again Craig said with a serious expression “It’s Kevin.”  You know the bird from the movie ‘Up’.  That set us up in a fit of giggles, ruining the serenity for the others because as you know Craig is a loud laugher!

More bad dad jokes on the way back included – What do you call a tree that’s good at spoken word? Poet-tree.  What do you call a polite tree who lays his coat over puddles so ladies don’t get their feet wet?  Gallant-tree.  What do you call a tree in Parliament? Minist-tree.  What do you call a tree that can build a house? Carpen-tree.  What do you call a tree that guards you?  A Sent-tree.  Had enough?  Yeah, I did too but they get worse.  What do you call a royal tree?  Majest-tree.

We indulged in a helicopter tour over all thirteen gorges and the surrounding area.  I got the gunshot seat at the beginning because when we flew over Heart Reef in the Whitsundays, Craig had the front.  I was stoked!  From this birds eye view you could see all of the falls and waterholes, and the walking track that takes you all the way to Edith Falls.  It looked great!  We even landed at the top of one of the gorges to have a look around and Craig called gunshot!  Whaaaat!!!  No fair.  Guess I shouldn’t complain.  I had a seat to myself, unlike the kids who were sharing a seat and each had half a bum cheek hanging over the seat!  We could see a few of the campgrounds, with small tents and people lolling around in the water.  They limit the number of people in there at any one time, so that’s a bonus as it’ll never be busy!  Another walk to add to the list!

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Patsy and her sister with their catch of Magpie Geese
Patsy and her sister with their catch of Magpie Geese

Kakadu is a magic place.  One of my favourite places in Australia.  The environment is still so pristine and the work the National Parks are doing, in coordination with traditional owners has to be applauded.  We bought a DVD from the Info centre called ‘Kakadu’ that we watched in the evening before the kids went to bed.  It showed the work the Rangers do with the land and animals and was pretty funny too.  In particular I’ll remember Patsy the elder who was out shooting magpie geese.  She’s a pretty good shot, but would mumble in frustration if she didn’t bring one down.  I’m sure in those mumbles was a fair bit of swearing.  She aims her barrel toward the sky, pulls the trigger and watches a bird fall to the ground.  She pauses looks toward the crew and says “I don’t eat chicken much”.  I bet she doesn’t!

We based ourselves at Jabiru and took day trips to all of the falls and waterholes.  The walks involved a lot of bouldering and aren’t classified as easy, still there were fair few people at every attraction.  Craig loved the shape of Jim Jim Falls.  We walked over all the boulders and went right to a secluded sandy beach.  I could have happily camped there for a night!  Traversing back around to the actual falls, we saw a heap of backpackers braving the cold water for a swim.

On the way to Twin Falls the car had another water crossing.  Yay!  We love water crossings now.  They had some unseasonal rain so the water level was at around the 800-900mm mark.  Enough to get the bow wave over the bonnet.  The water was still flowing at Twin Falls where I saw a rainbow (representative of the rainbow serpent)  in the spray of the waterfall and a couple of croc traps were clearly visible.  No swimming at Twin Falls!  Ginga (saltwater crocs) are about.

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We went on a Yellow Water cruise and saw an amazing array of birds and animals.  It was an unusually cold morning and we weren’t dressed for the cold.  Kids come first right?  So they took our outer layers to try and keep warm.  I’ve mentioned before, being cold is one of my least favourite things.  However, I was so distracted with spotting wildlife it wasn’t such an issue.  This was the first time Craig and the kids got to see a couple of decent sized Saltwater Crocs up close.  We had a really lucky morning with seeing a lot of the regular wildlife such as magpie geese, egrets and whistling ducks, but also spotting Jabiru, Sea Eagles, Crocs, Brolgas, an Azure Kingfisher and Jacana.  The Jacana are these small birds with crazy long toes.  They traverse across the lilypads and vegetation under the water and it looks like they are walking on water.  Jesus birds.

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At Gunlom Falls we met a family from Philip Island with two boys and have been bumping into each other throughout our travels.  Great for the kids to have some familiar friends and hang out with like-minded people.  The water was very ‘refreshing’ and we chose to swim in a large waterhole behind the pools just above the falls.  It was nice to warm up afterwards on the rocks that had been nicely heated by the sun.

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Ubirr has some magnificent rock art and a beaut view to boot!  The art was everywhere, hence a lot of photos.  Couldn’t help it, it was amazing.  We also played around with the panorama function on the iPhone at the very top which worked out pretty well.  The kids liked to find the art and pick out the images they knew.  The signs were fairly informative as well in explaining the symbolism of many of the figures.

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We ducked down to Cahill’s Crossing to see if we could spot a large croc, because let’s face it, you just can’t get enough viewings of crocs can you?  We spotted some whoppers!  One either side of the crossing.  There were a couple of guys walking around and fishing off the crossing.  Risky!  The croc swimming around on the right looked naughty and up to no good.  Plus he was the same length as a small boat that cruised close for a look.

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IMG_7717Darwin is ‘same, same but different’.  There is a lot more urban spread and the city has been gentrified, yet their still seems to be the old cheeky, ‘she’ll be right mate’ attitude.  School holidays and the peak nomad season probably contributed to the number of people around and made town seem crowded.  It’d be nice if all the tourists could bugger off so we could enjoy being tourists in my old stomping ground.

The waterfront is a new precinct that is comparable to South Bank.  Safe water to swim in, hotels, eateries and shops.  Lots of parkland to lay around and enjoy.  Visited some of the old haunts such as the Mindil Beach Markets, Casuarina Beach and Casuarina shops.  We caught up with an ex-Raafie Margie and her family at the markets and Casaurina.  It was so nice to reconnect and Margie and Wade were generous with their knowledge of the Kimberley, our next destination.

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Another new thing we discovered in Darwin was PokemonGo.  I gave in to the hype and downloaded it on my iPad without telling the children.  There I was walking around the caravan park like a plasmatized zombie trying to work out what the hell I was supposed to do to find these bloody Pokemon.  Confusion turned to excitement when I actually caught one, then two, then three!  Time to fess up and tell the kids.  “Kids, I’ve checked out this PokemonGo thing for ‘you’ and you can play it if you like’.  They are ridiculously excited and I let them walk around the park trying to find some Pokemon.  Craig is shaking his head in disappointment at us, until a day or so later he’s got it on his phone and is catching them too.  Thankfully the novelty wore off after a couple of days and it’s no longer even thought about.  It also probably helped that we were in a place where there is so much to do outside anyway without having to catch Pokemon.

Darwin feels like home and I could certainly do another stint living up here.  Although I wonder how I’d cope with the wet season.   Back then I was younger, fitter and leaner, I preferred no aircon in the house as it was too much of a shock walking from a cool inside environment to be hit with the humidity every time you stepped outside.  And that’s the whole point of living up there, being outside!  There is so much to explore.  While we rushed around Litchfield visiting multiple spots in one day, if you lived there you would go and spend your days off or at least a whole day at one waterhole at a time.

Jumping Croc
Jumping Croc

Years ago, I took my sister on a croc jumping tour and back then thought nothing of it.  Now, I feel a little differently about coaxing these beasts towards boats and people.  If you’re not on a tour, the last thing you want is a croc following your boat or trying to jump at you.  That being said, doing the tour all those years ago certainly left an impression on me as to how large they are, how fast they can swim and how powerful there jaws are.  Craig and kids did go on a Croc Jumping tour and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Here are their field notes:
Despite school holidays, there weren’t many tourists on the boat which meant the kids pretty much had the run of the downstairs area.  They started dangling bits of pig off the boat and the crocs started coming down off the riverbanks.
The biggest croc called Agro (6.1m) doesn’t jump but at 90 years old, who could blame him.  Scary jumped out so far you could see his belly.  A brave Sea Eagle swooped in about a foot before the croc’s mouth and stole his bait.  It was a dazzling display of speed, prowess and bravery.  Scary swam up close to the boat and when he jumped he was so close to the boat he was practically rubbing the side of the boat.  A story they were told was of an albino croc called Michael Jackson.  Once a guy who was fishing, dropped a 50c lure and he went into the water to retrieve it, in the process stepping on MJ’s head and the croc ate him!  Unfortunately the only witness was the man’s wife.  To rule out foul play on her behalf, Michael Jackson was caught, killed and dissected to recover the mans remains.  A rare croc was lost all because of a 50c lure.

We spent a day, trying to explore all that Litchfield had to offer.  It was probably too much to fit in, in one day.  A majority of the waterholes and attractions are easily reached from Darwin and holiday makers were everywhere.  The waterholes are still very, very beautiful though and the kids loved jumping in the water and off small rock ledges.  There weren’t too many people at the Lost City, as it’s a bit off the beaten track and mostly accessed by 4wd vehicles.  Craig said he felt like he was in an Indiana Jones movie.

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The last things to tick off the list for the NT were Edith Falls and Douglas Hot Springs.  We camped out at the Lazy Lizard in Pine Creek and that first night the tavern had bikies and bogans at the pool tables, a beat up piano for decoration and the jukebox was pumping.  Looked like heaps of fun and I wanted to go join in!  Not quite a family environment, so I listened from afar.  While I might not have been amongst the fun, I can’t complain.  I was snuggled up with the family in our cosy van and that’s not so bad.

Another really fond memory from my youth, is of a camping weekend at Douglas Hot Springs.  The place has really changed with formal camping areas and the place was a lot more popular than when I first visited!  The landscape of the springs had also changed as I remember a clear division between the cold creek and the hot spring with just one area where the hot water came across.  Floods and possible man made intervention means the division between the hot spring and the creek is no longer clearly defined.  The hot springs were hot!  Really hot!  You could see the hot water bubbling up in various spots through the coarse sand.  It would get too hot in places to sit or stand and we were constantly moving about to find a spot where the water was ‘just right’.  The kids loved seeing the signs about quicksand and their imaginations were running wild with what would actually happen to them if they got stuck in it.

 

Everyone in our family enjoyed the NT and agree it’s a special place that we’d happily revisit.  So, until we visit these wild lands again, we can dream of them… and watch the Kakadu videos.  “I don’t eat chicken much!”

The Cape capers continued

Feeding the calves at Bramwell Station
Feeding the calves at Bramwell Station

Bramwell Station is pretty much the last bit of civilisation before you hit the Old Telegraph Track (OTT). It is a working cattle station that also does a bit of road grading and tourism. Being novices at 4WDing, the plan was to mainly stay on the Peninsular Development Road (PDR) and head in to bits of the track we thought we could handle. So first thing we did was have a gander at the first crossing many people were talking about, the Palm Creek crossing.

We start along the track and there is a pretty rough section that had an easier looking side track. We took the easy track with The Wakefields following behind. Craig gets on the UHF and says “I think we made the right choice”. Amelie is sitting in the back, arms folded, wearing her poopy face and says “I think it was the sad choice!” The girl wants action and adventure! To bad if we break the car and end our holiday before we’re even a third of the way through it!

A small tributary possibly from Palm Creek is our first water crossing on the track and there is no ‘chicken track’ around it. Amelie is excited. The creek is a tiny, little stream but the crossing has been reduced to a big, muddy puddle. Craig checked it for hidden potholes and across we went. The kids loved it and were “Woo Hooing” in the back.

After a bit of a bumpy ride we reach Palm Creek. The track descends as a thick, muddy, sludge of road into a shallow, rocky, clear creek. The water itself wouldn’t have been a challenge. The challenge is getting out! There were two exits, one looked impossible and the other looked impossible-er! Very steep, soft and muddy. Craig and the kids start walking down towards the creek and all of a sudden they are playing a game of ‘Stuck in the Mud’ for real! Shoes, thongs and feet were stuck fast in the oozy track.

There was a walking track further around the bank with a wicked rope swing. If you swung into the creek from the bank, it would mean a long drop into some pretty shallow water. I’m talking ankle deep to calf deep! After checking for crocs in the clear water, everyone got busy washing their feet and footwear before we headed back to camp. Later in our trip we met a few people who tackled this crossing and pretty much everyone towing had to use all the recovery gear they had to get out the other side.

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With the rain still looming we opted to use cabins at Bramwell Station for the night. The cabins aren’t much chop, but dinner was good! A great big feed of ‘not just boiled’ veggies along with an assortment of meats. All of the roadhouses and stations here in the Cape employed backpackers to work the season. It was at first a little shocking to see young English girls out in the middle of he bush with limited communications, flies, mozzies and crocs. Welcome to Australia!

A young Isreali girl here at Bramwell let the kids help bottle feed some abandoned calves. They also petted the horses, so now after horses at Hann River and here, every little girl wants a horsey. Fat chance Amelie. It ain’t gonna happen! We spent the night listening to some decent live music and playing card games. The Wakefields also had ‘Elastics’ and Renee even remembered the rhyme that goes with all the jumping, “England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Inside, Outside, Monkey tails.”

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We head north on the PDR for a while until we venture in on the Telegraph Track to have lunch and a swim at Fruit Bat Falls. A short bit of track information for those who have never been – the road to the falls is short and easy with dedicated parking for trailers and ample space for you to turn around. The falls themselves were fantastic! Clear, cool, nice to swim in and pretty to look at. A definite must see up here.

Fruit Bat Falls, Old Telegraph Track, Cape York 2016
Fruit Bat Falls, Old Telegraph Track, Cape York 2016
The Croc Tent, Bamaga, Cape York
The Croc Tent, Bamaga, Cape York

We drove through to Bamaga, passing many wild brumbies along the way. How and why Brumbies are rampant just at this section of the tip, I cannot say. Our campsite was about 30km out of Bamaga and we stopped where the good road stops, at The Croc Tent. It is literally a large white tent with a feral, mohawked and pierced pig statue out the front keeping his croc and domestic pig statues company. The tent is full of souvenirs and doubles as an Information Centre. While it was fun to browse the croc t-shirts, the croc postcards, the croc feet back-scratchers and men’s croc g-strings, the information on the area map and local advice on which roads are worth tackling and which roads to avoid was invaluable.

The road to Punsand Bay is a bit rough but worth the destination. The campground fronts a beautiful sandy beach where you see reflections of both the sunrise and sunset over the water. It’s pretty hot and there’s still a bit of humidity hanging in the air. Once we’ve settled in, it’s togs on, towels over the shoulder and we head to the pool. The excitement ebbed away as we got closer to the red plastic tape surrounding what was supposed to be the pool area. The evidence that it was in fact the pool area, is an empty shell of a pool submerged in a sandy hole. There is no alternative to cooling off, as the beach and creeks are home to estuarine crocodiles.

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I’ve got to talk about the bar area because 3 out of 4 of our family love pubs remember! It’s got a great name, ‘The Corrugation Bar’. Apt after all the corrugated roads and the use of corrugated iron sheets in the construction of the bar. A popular place for the staff, guests and tour groups at the end of the day.

Top of Australia! Cape York 2016.
Top of Australia! Cape York 2016.

The walk to the tip felt nostalgic even though I’d never been there before. Many of my ex-military friends have gone on exercise to Bamaga and walked over the same rocks and stood at the same sign. These people were in my thoughts for much of the walk. The view of the clear azure waters and surrounding islands was pretty magnificent. The islands are so close, the water so inviting, that the temptation to dive in and swim across is hard to resist. Crocs and a few lingering stingers kept that temptation in check. Craig also pointed out the strong current which would have made the swim across to the opposite sandy beach quiet treacherous.

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Some may remember the resort "Pajinka Wilderness Lodge" a little differently to how it looks today.
Some may remember the resort “Pajinka Wilderness Lodge” a little differently to how it looks today.

A few people told me they had stayed at the resort up at the tip and I’m sorry to say it is now derelict. Apparently a fire in the generator shed destroyed the generator building and the resort was abandoned.

 

Somerset is a short drive from the tip of Cape York and is steeped in history.  The Jardine family had a lot to do with the early settlement of the area.  Frank Jardine nick-named ‘debil-debil Jardine’ by locals.  The guide books and historical writings say he was named that because of his ‘ruthless dealings’.  No doubt the man got a lot of stuff done but sounds like he must have been a right bastard too.  Frank and his wife Sana are buried at Somerset, along with many asian settlers.

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Thursday Island
Thursday Island

The ferry to Thursday Island leaves from Seisa, near Bamaga, and took us past many of the small islands and the very large Prince of Wales Island. Thursday Island itself is bustling with 3000 people living on the island. The pearling industry died out after buttons went from pearl shells to plastic, yet it is still a place with a lot of employment opportunity. The large number of residents is due to the many government agencies, a crayfish industry, tourism and the hospital which services all of the Torres Straight islands and much of the Cape York area. The residents of TI seemed to take real pride in their town and homes, which was not so evident on the mainland.

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Dirk from Lax Tours and Charters, Thursday Island.

Dirk from Lax Charters and Tours took us on a personalised tour of Thursday Island which was great.  He was born here and lives on Prince of Wales Island.  A true local!  He showed us through the crayfish factory, talked about a traditional drum, gave us a sample of some pickled fish, talked about their local burial customs and hunting practices.  As I come from European stock and food is a very important part of my culture, of course I asked all the important questions, “what does turtle taste like?”, “what about dugong?”.  Oh, and for all of my relatives the pickled fish was delicious.  Not sure I remembered how he prepared it, but I might email and ask.

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Dirk also taught us how to do the ‘Lax’ hand sign, which uses your right hand’s pointer finger parallel to the ground and your thumb toward the sky.  Show the back of your hand to the recipient so they see the letter ‘L’ and say “Lax” with attitude.  I can see why Dirk has used this for his business name and it pretty much sums up the tour.  There is no polished script or formal program.  He goes with the flow of the group that he has got and we were pretty happy to have been shown around by him. I might even drag Faz around to show us where he was born… probably in the hospital.  It’d be a better story if it wasn’t.

Time to head out of the bush and back to civilisation. We couldn’t resist another swim at Fruit Bat Falls. Found another spot to jump off the rocks and into a deeper section of the pools. It was fun and the adults were jostling with the kids to have a go. The little turtle we spotted there earlier probably wasn’t so pleased about it!

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Sailor Creek, Old Telegraph Track, Cape York
Sailor Creek, Old Telegraph Track, Cape York

Decide to tackle the Telegraph Track down to the northern Gunshot bypass. Most people drive the OTT from south to north so we would be going against the 4wd flow which can make passing tricky on such narrow and rough tracks. We check the map notes and our first creek, Sailor Creek is bridged. Sweet! Should be easy. We get there and are confronted with a picturesque wooden bridge with a great, big, friggen, gaping hole in it!  The photo doesn’t depict the horror, honestly it was way worse than it looks!  The only way across is to guide the wheels over the exposed support beam. Front wheels over, back wheels over, go, go, go! Guiding Pete with the trailer was even more nerve wracking! The responsibility of not stuffing this up weighed on me. I needed a stiff drink and unfortunately didn’t stock up before we left Bamaga! Thankfully Renae over catered with her cans of cider, has a goon bag of wine in reserve and is generous in sharing!

 

Cockatoo Creek, Old Telegraph Track, Cape York
Cockatoo Creek, Old Telegraph Track, Cape York

Onwards along the track to Cockatoo Creek. This one looks a little technical! It’s not deep, but it’s got a very rocky and uneven bottom with big potholes. We walked it several times and decided on the best line to take tomorrow. We set up camp on the northern side where there is a large undercover picnic table area and even some toilets. Unfortunately the small water tank is empty and the pipe to flush the foot pump toilets has been pulled out of the ground and was broken. Nothing a bucket of water or a really, really long wee can’t remedy to get the loo paper down!

Cockatoo Creek 03We had packed all of our camping gear and clothes etc in the back of the ute. Every time the boys were talking about something camping or car related, Craig said “I have one of those” and would pull it out of the car. Pete would say “Really! What else have you got in there? It’s like the Tardis”, which eventually got nicknamed “The Cardis”.

While we were setting up camp we heard a 4wd approach. A guy got out walked the creek pretty carefully and we all stood on the bank to watch him cross. He picked the same line we did and with a bit of rocking and rolling got out the other side okay. Up next a convoy of four 4wds with trailers. This would be good to watch as the Wakefields are towing a trailer and we can see how these guys fare. Everyone seems to be more experienced than us with this 4wding gig and we look on with keen interest. The first few cars came out alright, not great but still okay, but the last guy took a totally different line and was scraping his car and trailer all along the rocks. Just went to show that those guys may be more experienced than us, perhaps not necessarily more wise.

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This was a great camp and a great night. We enjoyed a spectacular light show in the clouds as the sun set. I was singing the praises of paper towel (a staple item to take camping) and said “Paper towel! What can’t it do?” Cue smart-arse older children, “It can’t fly”, “It can’t swim”, “It can’t make you dinner” etc. Noticing how this gave me the sh!ts, they promptly set about writing a list called ’50 things paper towel can’t do’. They didn’t stop at just a list. Oh no, no, no! They made up a story about the failings of ‘Jimmy the paper towel’ and turned it into a book. Bloody kids!

Craig started up a game of slaps with the kids. Now, I am going to blow some wind up my own butt here and say, I’m pretty good at this game. The kids eventually all wanted to challenge me at some stage. Alex really loved the game and he was pretty good at it too. Lauren and Xavier also tried their hand (literally). Slap! Slap! Slap! Take that you paper towel smart arses!

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Another car crossed the creek the next morning and now it was our turn. Craig was so keen to cross he didn’t notice that I was still walking across trying not to slip over carrying the tripod and his iPhone! So no evidence of his crossing but I caught the Wakefields journey across.

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About 95kms before we get to Coen, a road train throws up a rock and smashes our windscreen. One word, starts with F, it ain’t ‘fudge’ and rhymes with ‘bark!’ It’s too big to self repair but thankfully out of Craig’s direct line of vision. We arrive at a free camp called The Bend which is just out of town. It’s got a drop loo, a couple of bins and a creek you can swim in. We decide to cross the creek and camp on what is essentially a sandy, dry river bed. The sand is deep, grainy and very, very soft. Pete almost, but doesn’t quite make it out the other side, the sand is too soft and his rig is too heavy. Max tracks and a shovel to the rescue! The boys had prepared well for contingencies, so it was kind of fun to use a bit of recovery gear.

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This would have to be one of the nicest spots we camped at. Bonus points for actually being able to get into the water! Apart from Fruit Bat Falls, this has been the only place we could swim at. The kids were catching tadpoles, we enjoyed lazing in the water and washed our hair in a bucket on the bank of the creek. Another bonus was we got mobile reception there, so Pete and I were posting some happy snaps of the family in the water on social media.

That night we turned off all of our camp lights and gazed at the millions of stars twinkling back at us. Mars could be seen clearly and we even saw a few shooting stars. It’s one of those nights we will all remember fondly.

Proof of life photo
Proof of life photo at The Bend, Coen, Cape York

Early on the 30th of May, I received a phone call from my sister. It appeared the country was waking up to the news that a woman in her mid 40s had been taken by a croc in Cape York… and my sister was just checking in to make sure it wasn’t me! Remember that just the day before I’ve posted photos of the family swimming in a water hole up at the Cape. Texts, messages and posts on Facebook were all trying to confirm the same thing and provide warnings. “It wasn’t you was it Suarez?” It wasn’t me! After living in Darwin for a couple of years, I have a healthy respect for the prowess and strength of the saltwater croc. You can translate that into I’m bloody shit scared of them and wouldn’t ever put myself in their territory on purpose. It’s a terribly sad event for this woman, her family and friends, however it must be said she was engaging in incredibly risky behaviour.

You can never be too safe anywhere but here was the scenario for us indulging in a dip. The Bend is a known swimming spot that is listed in the travel sites. When we arrived, we saw a large family of locals enjoying a picnic and a swim, and I asked them if the creek was safe which they confirmed it was. I know this is still not a 100% guarantee but it’s as good as you can get. The local guy at the servo who has lived in Coen all of his life has never seen or heard of a saltwater crocodile at that swimming hole. He did say a 1m freshie was found there once, but the locals caught it and ate it! I would too. Crocodile meat is quite delicious. I’m hoping there is still an opportunity to get a croc burger up in Darwin.

Another stop over at Cooktown allowed the kids to have a dip in the pool, access to real showers and toilets, and washing machines. Just in time too, we were out of clean undies. Craig was pretty stoked to have access to a washing bay and hose to get the red mud off the car. The two toned red and white look has gone and the car is shiny white again. It was kind of sad to see all the mud go. Felt like the car lost some of it’s Cape cred.

Removing vegetation on the Bloomfield Track, Cape Tribulation.
Removing vegetation on the Bloomfield Track, Cape Tribulation.

The next morning saw us pack up camp just before the rain came and make our way towards an even rainier Cape Tribulation along the Bloomfield track. We hoped to stay at Cape Tribulation for the night because it was such a nice spot. Neither family wanted to set up camp in the rain and decided to push on straight to Cairns. The Bloomfield track was pretty wet, slippery, it’s got trees and branches down and the last creek crossing almost made us have to change our undies! Just before we hit it, a convoy of three 4wds heading north asked us what the track was like further up. We gave them the run down and they told us the creek was flowing but they got across okay.

About 5 minutes later we get to the creek and it’s flowing alright! We go first and I’m trying to video it through the windscreen. When the water rushed over the bonnet and hit the bottom of the windscreen I started ‘packing my daks’ and my concern for the quality and steadiness of the camera was replaced with thoughts of which side of the car we should jump out of! The car was moving forward but it was also moving sidewards! We were pretty relieved when the front wheels hit the other side and we drove out. Now the worry was transferred to the Wakefields who had to do the same thing but with the added length of a trailer. They saw us cross and allowed for drift. Even so, the trailer came out with only a small margin of room to get passed the tree on the other side. Lucky neither family was in a Yaris. Apparently they float in 15cm of water! I’m guessing that will be our last water crossing for a while and maybe even for the rest of our trip, but who knows our luck in the outback!

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Now that we’ve been up to the top of The Cape and back, we would absolutely consider doing it again. It was a fantastic experience. Maybe once we have a bit more experience under our belt and with a few more modifications to the car. We went pretty easy as we were mindful of not wrecking the car that was needed for the rest of our adventure. Speaking of which, see you at the next blog about the Savannah Way.

Let’s spend the night together, at Rollingstone

Rollingstone Caravan Park
Rollingstone Caravan Park

This place couldn’t be more on the beach if you tried! Van and campsites literally sit at the top of the small dune. Palm trees and green grass mark the point where van park begins while rocks and sand slightly slope away to meet the tide. We were advised not to swim in the ocean as a resident salt water crocodile lived nearby in one of the creeks and would occasionally swim up along the beach. The kids, and Craig affectionately named the croc Mister Snappy. I would unaffectionately call it ‘a bloody croc!’

Rstone camp 01We chose a site slightly back from the beach edge as Craig was hoping to escape the worst of any bad weather, while I was ‘not so secretly’ happy to be well over 15m away from any croc activity. This fear could be a hangover from the croc tours and stories told by fishing mates while living in Darwin or I could just be getting soft, either way I’m super wary of them!

After setting up, we decided to hang out at the pool. It was refreshing, had a waterfall and was beautifully landscaped. Soon enough we were joined by an ex-army guy. He seemed a bit loose with whatever he went through in his time, but was friendly enough. We talked a bit and I was in fits of laughter over a few of his stories. One in particular involved taking some US soldiers through what was included in the Australian ration packs. Now I may not do the story justice if I tried to tell it again as he did, suffice to say it involved; Vegemite being described as ‘hoop snake’ and ‘drop bear’ repellant, the explanation of what hoop snakes and drop bears were, disbelief from a US soldier that this was the truth and it was perhaps a type of food because it was in a ration pack, screaming about insubordination to a superior rank and confirming that toilet paper and matches which are also in ration packs are not food, ordering the US soldier to eat the Vegemite, reluctance to eat the Vegemite by the soldier, strong emphasis that it was a direct order, eating and then spitting out of the foul tasting Vegemite and the ‘dabbing of Vegemite behind the ears technique’ used by the US soldiers. Still makes me laugh. Maybe you had to be there!

Rollingstone was our base and we took day trips out to visit the local sights. Crystal Creek Falls was very picturesque. A beautiful stone bridge covered a cascade of falls down to a larger pool. A leech tried to befriended me as apparently I have juicy blood. Just ask the mozzies. The kids were fascinated and simultaneously grossed out, as I picked up the leech on a large tropical nut and it did it’s fastest leech lap around and around the nut in an attempt to get a hold of my skin. The kids overcame their fear of those slimy little suckers and discovered the joy that is nature’s slippery slide, the waterfalls.

Paluma Dam was a quick stop with an impromptu family game of tiggy. This is not my favourite game. I’m not a fan of running very much and Craig is impossible to catch. He will keep up a slow jog just out of my reach for ages! Insert expletive here. It also doesn’t help when you have to run in thongs. Inevitably I end up targeting the children as I can outrun them for now. Only just!

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We stopped for lunch at a cafe up the top where a ‘Bird Life of Paluma’ DVD was playing. While spotting wildlife is great, we do kind of pull the mickey out of the serious bird watcher. I’ve got to say though, the DVD had us all fascinated at the amazing variety of bird life found in just this one place. They even had a humpy pigeon. That’s not its real name but the name we gave to a crazy pigeon in Coolum who took a fascination to humans during its mating period and had me running and ducking for cover and my sister trapped in her car!

We had one of our first rainy days so what better to do than go to Wallaman Falls, which is the largest single drop waterfall in Australia. It was a 2km slippery yet very pretty walk down to the falls. We were lucky enough to see a rainbow through the mist and the rain. There is a barricade a fair distance from the pool at the bottom of the falls and this disappointed Xavier greatly. He was pretty keen on hitting the water. I wonder what it would be like under the fall? Probably pretty full on and probably wouldn’t get back up from under it!

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Rstone Wallaman Falls 06
Face of pain

On our way back up, for what must come down 2kms must go back up, a couple of young guys alerted us to the fact that they thought they saw a red-bellied black snake on the track. I swapped places with Xavier to take the lead just in case it was still on the track. With the pressure of the lead I set a steady pace but one that slightly pushed my comfort level. I could hear Xavier behind me puffing and panting but with little to no encouragement he stuck with me. The pace was starting to take its toll, my breathing was becoming more laboured and I was sweating from everywhere. I swear there was sweat coming out of my eyeballs! With Xav up my butt, I couldn’t stop. My pride was on the line! Where ever my fitness went, I still don’t know, but it up and bloody well deserted me! By the end, my son was giving me encouragement and I was holding him back. I could see it in his eyes, the moment he realised what was once my strength, is now his. He is the strong one, the fit one. It’s going to be hard to keep up with them now.

Mother’s Day morning was spent having cuddles with my munchkins, breakfast made for me and flowers stolen from the campground gardens. A perfect end to our stay at Rollingstone.Rstone Mothers Day 01 Rstone Mothers Day 02

Towers and the Ville

CTowers vanparkCHARTERS TOWERS

This caravan park felt like a resort! With tropical landscaped pools, potted plants in the amenities and great facilities. We met a family who were camped near us straight away. Truth be told, the guy was admiring Craig’s fat boy bike prior to saving us from backing the van into a pole. Surprise, surprise our saviour does triathlons and was a little happy about having a test ride on the Fat Boy. You triathletes are fricken everywhere!

They are a nice family from Townsville with a son around Xavier’s age. They came to Charters Towers to have a weekend away and go to the drive in. Yep, a Drive In! We couldn’t miss the opportunity to give the kids a taste of our childhood so we tagged along. The kids were stoked they could rug up in the back seat ‘without wearing seat belts!’ Xav particularly thought it was ‘old school cool’.  An outdoor cinema listening through the speakers. Amelie also liked having the option of going to sleep if she wanted to. Not that either of them did fall asleep! Which meant we couldn’t hang out for the second movie which wasn’t PG. No doubt you’re itching to know what we saw. Superman Vs Batman. It was better than the reviews led us to believe. Probably didn’t matter what was playing the novelty of the drive in outweighed any acting deficits.

Our full day here was a Sunday. Not so great for touring the town as many things were closed. I loved that the library was once an old pub, and many of the buildings were quite architecturally pretty. So back to camp where the kids had a great time riding bikes, playing on the walking talkies and mucking around in the pool. We planned an antipasto dinner together up on Towers Hill Lookout, watched a beautiful sunset and listened to an old timers stories and video about the Ghosts of Gold, the history of Charters Towers.

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There is plenty to see and do here in Charters Towers, and while we didn’t do too much, it was nice to meet a great family. Both our families were heading to Townsville and we planned to catch up in their home town.

TOWNSVILLE

TvilleWe arrive in Townsville and I’ve made plans to catch up with an ex military friend, while Craig and the kids cycle around the Strand with our new found friends. I really enjoyed my catch up and four hours chatting at Longboards just flew by. There is just something about old military friends that’s easy. It might be that we all lived and breathed the same supportive environment and you relate to each other no matter how long it’s been.

Meanwhile Craig and the kids went for bike ride with the Father and son we met in Charters Towers to tour the sights along The Strand and surrounds. We spent a bit of time here taking advantage of the urban setting and picking up some items to complete our camp set up.

A trip to Magnetic Island was a must.  We hired a retro, yellow, mini moke. The kids loved it and so did we.  I kind of imagined how much fun this Island would be if you were a young backpacker who’s sole agenda was to have as much fun as possible.  Xavier seriously loved it, he was working out how he could actually buy one when he gets his licence.  The sad thing is that it’s getting harder to source parts to repair the Mokes when needed and there are only a handful left on the island.

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We decided to do the Fort walk first up to beat the heat as it was turning into a hot and muggy day.  You’ve got to admire the diggers of old, who would have busted their butts to get all of the concrete, water and building supplies up that hill.  The conditions would have been crappy at times, but I’d bet they had the best fun!

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We visited all the bays, made our own swings, followed the red-tailed black cockatoos and had lunch in the pub. Yay!

Our new friends invited us to their house for our last night in town.  Indian food, a few drinks, great conversation while the kids got a Minecraft fix was a great way to end our stay here in Townsville.

I can’t end this post, without mentioning the caravan park we stayed at.  The thing that was unique about this place was the country music that was piped through the amenities block 24hrs a day!  The lyrics were hilarious!  The last memorable one was  “money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a boat.”  I know a few people who would agree with that!  My version of happiness, is this trip with the ones I love most.  Even with all the fights and farts!  Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Dinosaur Trail Part 2 – Hughenden

Winton to Hughenden
Winton to Hughenden

Craig did quite a bit of research into what vehicle and van would work best for our needs on this trip. Gotta say, he did a great job. He loved the car from the get go, and towing the van has been pretty easy. Typically we average between 14-15ltrs of diesel fuel per 100km. Towing the van with a roaring headwind all the way from Winton to Hughenden wasn’t fun and our average fuel consumption blew out to 20ltrs per 100km.

Hughenden Anderson
Oh where, oh where has my Anderson plug gone? Oh, where oh where can it be?

On arriving we discovered our first problem. The Anderson plug to the van has been wired to top up the battery in the van as we drive. It however, was missing in action. All that was left of it were some sheared off cables with the copper hanging out! I can only imagine the journey it would have had. Holding on and slowly but surely losing it’s grip on the connector to bounce and drag along the harsh bitumen of the Kennedy Development Rd. Made me think of watching Westerns with my dad, where some villian or poor hero has his hands tied and is dragged along behind a horse, loosing bits of flesh along the way. Luckily, we were camped right next to a helpful retired auto mechanic. He gave Craig some good advice and now we have a shopping list to repair it.

The second thing we lost on this leg of the journey was a tightening screw off the caravan awning. We lost one previously and they are expensive (for what they are) and tricky to replace. You also have to buy them in pairs! So we had a single spare handy for the one we lost this time. I usually put the awning away… soooo it’s probably my fault. No more spares! Must remember to tighten these screws properly!

Hughenden is 300m above sea level. That’s like living above Mt Coolum. The days were a little cooler reaching a maximum of 32 degrees during the day and we had one morning were it was a crisp 16degrees.  It was a bit of a novelty to reach for a jumper or extra blanket. In a rare show of solidarity, the children snuggled together to keep warm.

The whole reason we came here was to continue the dinosaur trail so I’d better get back to gas-bagging about fossils. The Flinder’s Discovery Centre has a life size replica of Hughie the Muttaburrasaurus. The original bones were found in Muttaburra and another skull, a few teeth and some additional bones were found in Hughenden. The Centre has a vast array of fossils and gemstones, a good video explaining the formation of Porcupine Gorge, a sheep industry display and a collection of items from years gone by. While this Centre has a lot of stuff, it lacked explanation of what was there and hence, my attention span was pretty limited. I wasn’t the only one! A few groups of people came and went in the time we were inside and I imagine the average length of visit would fall short of the one hour mark.

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The town has many dinosaur related installations throughout.  It also has locusts!  Winton has flies, Hughenden locusts, I can’t wait to see how big the pests get at our next stop!  Oh, also be careful of the Hughenden cows.  They eat cars apparently.

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Flinders River runs through town and at 1004kms, is Queensland’s longest river. It was almost bone dry. A small puddle under the bridge and a muddy section near the bank was all that was left of it in Hughenden. It was kind of surreal to see bike tracks along the riverbed and is yet another reminder of how desperately these towns need a decent drop of rain.

Flinders River 01
Flinders River

A walking trail winds its way along the bank of the river, includes an eco walk and, according to Craig, one of the best public fitness trails he has seen. That being said, he did think it was lacking lower body exercises… for his liking. Never skip leg day! There were also quite a few windmills, and windmill memorials around town. Thanks to Krissy, we now strain our eyeballs to see if they are Southern Cross windmills.

Heading to the local Chinese restaurant was a novelty and we figured the kids could practice their language skills. They only really said ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, which is not nearly enough to warrant calling it a Chinese class. Amelie was fascinated with all of the Chinese decorations and told us the story of why the Chinese like the colour red. Well, she tried to. She gets a bit muddled with the details (as do I frequently enough), so Xavier corrected the story (as Craig is often left to do) and Craig and I learned a little something from the kids.Another interesting place to visit was the FJ Holden cafe. It is owned by Frankie J Holden and his wife and was a real step back in time. Juke boxes, Elvis memorabilia, Coca Cola collections and of course an extensive collection of all things Holden. The burgers were good too!

Porcupine Gorge 05.jpgThe absolute best thing about Hughenden, (in my humble opinion) was heading out to Porcupine Gorge.  This is where a pyramid section of rock is exposed and reveals the layers of earth as it formed.  It was a pretty hot day when we ventured there and I was looking forward to cooling off once we hit the water at the bottom.

It’s spectacularly beautiful in the gorge with caves of all sizes carved out of the softer sandstone and while their was water in various pools, it wasn’t flowing.  The stagnant water had a lot of ‘stuff’ growing in it.  You know, the plants and algaes that make swimming unappealing.  That stuff.  Most of the remaining pools were in the deepest parts of the river bed and the sides of the rocks were mostly vertical.  This made it difficult to even sit on the edge and dangle our feet in the water.

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Porcupine Gorge 10A steep walk into the gorge meant a steep climb out!  It took a lot of sweat with a few complaints after seeing false summits but we made it back and treated ourselves to cold fruit and yoghurt.  Hooray for a car fridge!  I also had to explain what these dragonflies were doing.

So, that pretty much sums up Hughenden.  Wait!  Just in case anyone was waiting with baited breath to hear if the pool tour continues… yes, for the record, Craig and Amelie swam in the Hughenden pool.  Now, we head towards our final destination on the Dinosaur trail, Richmond.