From Goats on the Table to The Great Barrier Reef

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Millie in my kitchen, Farm Stay in Nelia, QLD

We left Mount Isa after visiting the library and the pool, and headed down the highway towards the east coast. We were headed–had been heading for days–to meet a friend in Townsville, still another 904 kilometres. I sat shotgun, studying Wikicamps and the map and the Camps Book and after about forty-five minutes, I said to Lee, “Turn off here—let’s check out this free camp.”

“But we’ve only gone 57 kilometres.”

“I know,” I said. “We’ll just have a look.” We found this spacious free camp at Corella Dam.

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There were people camped for weeks, and you could see why. Four baby lapwings greeted us as we pulled in. Our neighbour went out to find firewood for us. We watched the pelicans fish. We  saw the sun set over the dam.

imageAnd then the wind started. It was gale-force. Wind and tents don’t mix—we learned that on the west coast. The noisy flapping kept Lee and R and I up most of the night. The next day, we packed up and got on the road.

Our next stop was a farm stay in Nelia, population 10. It was like something out of a children’s book. K wrote in her journal:

Goats on the table

Chickens on the roof

Cow in the kitchen

Mozzies eating us alive!!!

 imageThe farm stay was on Main Street, sandwiched between the old post office and the railroad track that runs sulphuric acid and copper from the mine in Mount Isa to Townsville.imageEric, a friendly talkative man, runs the farm with his partner, who was away. Eric grew up in Nelia and his mum ran the post office until it closed. The town used to be bigger, but now Eric’s got just one neighbour across the road, whom he doesn’t get on with.

The girls loved getting to water the pigs and feed the chickens. They were sad to say goodbye to Bo Bo the goat and Millie the cow, but off we went. I went early, cycling against the wind.

We stopped in Richmond to see a museum full of prehistoric fossils from the area. K’s favourite was a plesiosaur that, several decades ago, two boys found while playing in the creek behind their house. Scientists and volunteers are still digging in the area. I dream of coming back here with K and joining the dig as a volunteer.

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That afternoon we drove for hours along that dry flat desolate road. At some point the name changed from the Barkly Highway to the Flinders, but the road was the same. That night we camped for free behind a pub in the small outback town of Pentland. With a grassy site, toilets (complete with green tree frogs) and showers, this was a bargain.

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The long road to Townsville from the interior

The next day we drove on through the flat arid landscape that seemed never to end.  And then, it changed! All of a sudden there were rolling green hills and green as far as you could see. We were getting close to the east coast.

At Charters Towers, we hit traffic for the first time since we left Perth on a Friday afternoon in April.

In Townsville the sea greeted us, and so did our dear friend, Katrina. She works for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island Legal Service (ATSILS). We stayed with Katrina in her lovely flat and were pampered with great food and good wine. Thank you, Auntie Katrina!

I’ve only seen a handful of friends from Sydney since we started the journey. My friend Jenny flew up to Darwin in July, which was magic. It’s so nice to catch up with Sydney friends, though I don’t think I miss anything else about the city!

On Saturday we took our bikes on the boat to Magnetic Island. The weather was cloudy and blustery, so I didn’t have to worry about sunscreen for once.

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K cycling towards an enormous fig on Magnetic Island

After three beautiful days with Katrina, we headed north—not very far—to Crystal Creek. There’s a natural waterside here in the rocks, complete with just enough algae to make you go fast. Magic.

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K coming down sliding rock

We were fortunate to meet up with some friends that we made in Cape Arid National Park in WA, six months previously. Lu and Bede are newly retired, and doing a lap, just like us. They’re over sixty, but fitter than most forty-year-olds. At K’s request, they went down the rock slides, too.  It’s the eighth time we’ve met up with them along the way.

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And again (and again and again . . . )

K wanted to stay at the sliding rocks indefinitely, but after two nights we headed north, hoping to get to the Tablelands. We hadn’t counted on road works.

Or the fact that I like to stop at every single roadside fruit stand.

imageAt around four in the afternoon, we still hadn’t gotten to the turn off that would take us to Yungaburra. Our fridge was warming up and we realised we needed to plug in–we needed a caravan park, and soon. I was driving; it was hot; I had a headache. When I saw that Cairns was only another fifty kilometres, I looked at Lee.

“You want to go to Cairns?”

His eyes lit up. As a backpacker, nearly twenty years ago, Cairns was the first place in Australia Lee came to. He flew from the dull and dreary UK to this tropical paradise. When he landed here in June 1997, it was 27 degrees and sunny in the middle of “winter”. The beer was cheap, the palms swayed in the breeze and I think he thought he’d died and gone to heaven. He went to the Wool Shed every night and drank until he danced on the tables.

Needless to say, times have changed. As I write this, it’s 8:45 in the evening and he’s fallen asleep while putting the girls to bed.

So, we came to Cairns, along with about a million other tourists. This is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and it is a lovely tropical setting, albeit very touristy. We’re here for one more night before heading into the bush again.

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K getting ready to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef

Today, Lee and K took a boat to Green Island, where they snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef, alive with huge sea turtles, colourful fish and giant clams. What a life.

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Picturesque: Sunset on the Esplanade in Cairns
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Adventures in Northwest Outback Queensland

Eight days ago we left the centre, took the Stuart Highway north and watched the mercury rising. We passed the Tropic of Capricorn and stayed the night at Devils Marbles. I couldn’t resist a few more photographs.

The following morning we drove to Three Ways and then east along the Barkly Highway, a lonely stretch of road.

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In the more remote areas of Australia, markers on the highway show the distance to and initials of the next town. On the Barkly in the NT, however, there are no towns; for that stretch of 257 kilometres, the markers heading west read SH for Stuart Highway and headed east they read QLD, for the Queensland border.

I took my bike out early and cycled down this long straight flat road that cuts through the middle of Australia. I cycled 26 kilometres against the wind, which felt more like 96. I’ve never been so happy to see our trailer with the pink kayak on top coming my way.

I’ve cycled bits of this trip around Australia; it’s the easy way to bike round. I don’t have to carry any gear and Lee always picks me up after an hour or two. It’s nice to slow down and peddle sections of the journey. I enjoy the rare moments of solitude. I can hear the birds, feel the wind. And sometimes I just stop, get off the bike, and stare into the vastness of the landscape.

Sometimes I think of my late brother, who, with his best friend, Bob, cycled across the U.S. one summer: Atlanta to LA, a hundred miles a day. This was the early 90s and he used to send back rolls of film—no note—just a Kodak roll that my mother would develop. We’d look at the photos and try to guess where he was.

It’s all flat grassland as far as you can see on the Barkly and then, 40 kilometres from the border:

imageWhat a place to find the Bard!

We crossed the border with almost no fruit and veg because of quarantine (that turned out to be lax going into Queensland, unlike other states). At Cammoweal, just over the border, I’d planned to shop, but it was a public holiday we’d forgotten all about, and everything was shut.

We drove off the highway, looking for a free camp on the Cammoweal Billabong, but the road was closed because of recent heavy rains.

So, we carried on down the highway, fruitless, unsure of our next camp. We found a free camp on the side of the highway, but it was bleak. We weren’t sure whether to start down the dirt road to Budjamulla National Park–it was over 200 kilometres and we didn’t know how the road was after all that heavy rain. Then, three mud-splattered four wheel-drives pulled into the rest area.

I went over to them. “How’s the road?”

“Fun!” one young man said with a smile. “I only crashed twice.”

“The mud’s a bit slippy,” another said. “It’ll take you four hours.”

We’d already been driving four hours, but we decided to go for it—at least drive part of the way. Anything had to be better than that sad rest area with no shade, a concrete block for a table and toilet paper in the bushes.

It was three o’clock as we pulled out of the rest area. When another car returning from the dirt track saw which direction we were going, he shouted out, “Good luck!”

An emu greeted us on the side of the road at the start of our journey. And a red kangaroo hopped just in front of the car and then alongside us at 40 kilometres an hour and I knew we’d made the right decision.

I drove. I remember the first puddle because as I went through, it slowed the car and covered the windscreen so I couldn’t see anything. The girls cheered in the back seat. Lee rolled his eyes.

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This was our first time driving in mud and it reminded me of driving through snow in Binghamton, NY—at some point you lose control of the car and just pray that it stays on the road.

Two hours later, and we were still driving through mud. The girls played in the backseat where they’d been since nine a.m. I was getting hungry and trying to calculate when the sun would set. We’d gained half an hour when we entered Queensland.

When we got to our first river crossing I stopped the car, hopped out, and let Lee put it in four wheel-drive. We got through fine.

Then we came to a raging river crossing.

Lee and I were both nervous. I got out and walked through—it only came up to my knees, but the current was strong. Lee, convinced that we were far too heavy to be swept away, put it in four wheel-drive again and powered through. It’s the only time I’ve been grateful for all the weight we’re carrying. I was too nervous to take a photo, but I took one on our way out five days later.

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That night we stayed at a bush camp. A mob of agile wallabies greeted us as we came through the gate. We were the only ones camping and we woke at sunrise with the birds, had pancakes with a million flies, packed up and drove a short way up the road to Riversliegh D Site.

Riversliegh Fossil Fields

We were the only ones visiting this place that—25 million years ago—had been a rain forest and home to animals such as the “thunderbird”, or dromornithid, a huge flightless bird that weighed 300 kilos and was three times the size of an emu, but is apparently more closely related to the modern-day domestic duck.

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Thunderbird (image from pinterist.com)

We saw fossils of this bird and of a now extinct giant freshwater crocodile and a horned turtle, below.

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Fossil of a turtle from 25 million years ago

In this site and others nearby, they’ve also found fossils of the now extinct marsupial lion, carnivorous kangaroo, and flesh-eating bats.

As we searched for fossils and walked through Riversleigh Site D, it was hard to imagine the wet climate that supported these beings 25 million years ago.

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Riversleigh Site D

 

Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill Gorge)

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Lawn Hill Gorge

After driving 207 kilometres down a desolate dirt road, it is a welcome surprise to come across the lush oasis that is Boodjamulla National Park (formerly Lawn Hill National Park).

It’s no wonder that the Waanyi people have called this place home for well over 30,000 years (which means they were around when the last of the thunderbirds walked the earth 28,000 years ago, and might have hunted the slow birds to extinction). We saw rock art from 10,000 years ago near the creek.

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Bower of the bower bird

I’d booked us in for three nights at Boodjamulla, but we stayed four, and would’ve stayed longer if we’d had more food. Each morning the purple-crowned fairy wren visited our campsite, along with crimson finches, bower birds, and dozens of other feathered friends.

In the evenings we saw turtles in the creek, which is vast and green and rich with limestone that’s good for producing fossils. It’s more of a river than a creek.

The days were hot, the nights cool. Each morning and evening I kayaked up through the gorge to the cascades, where I swam with the girls. River pandanus drapes the edges of the creek until you reach the tall cliffs of the gorge. Swallows nest on the sides of these vast red rocks, darting back and forth along the water. A few trees grow, their roots reaching metres down to the waters of the creek.

imageR came with me in the kayak in the mornings. She sat between my legs, occasionally trying to paddle, chatting all the way. We made up stories about imaginary creatures who live in the creek: the Budja Budja, a bright pink octopus with ten legs, who feeds on the stripy fish beneath our kayak, and the Bunda Bunda, a blue turtle with green wings, who lays its eggs on the tops of the lily pads we paddled past.

The birds chirped in the trees around us. Bubbles rose to the surface from unknown creatures below. Dragonflies mated in the air.

These were long languid mornings, out of time. We were often the only ones on the water. My shoulders still ache from all that paddling.

One night we let K stay up late. Lee made a mattress of canvas on the ground and she lay with a sleeping bag under the night sky. She waited patiently for the sky to darken—identifying Venus and Mars and Saturn. She waited and watched, and then we saw it: the most magnificent shooting star streaked across the sky. “I saw one!” she screamed. And so she saw her first shooting star. Then she saw three more.

On our last evening in Budjamulla we borrowed another canoe and all four of us paddled up the river at sunset. We went skinny dipping at the cascades in the fading light and paddled back down under the light of a half moon.

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Mount Isa

It was with great reluctance that we left Eden and it was a shock to arrive in the mining town of Mount Isa. But we were completely out of food and water and only just made it to Woolies in “Isa” before it shut at five yesterday. It’s Sunday today and everything’s closed except the Fossil Centre.

This morning K and I went on a two-hour tour, led by an enthusiastic volunteer. We saw hundreds of fossils from Riversliegh, where we were, just days ago.

We got to look through microscopes at fossils from 3 million year-old bat poo—tiny ancient mouse bones and teeth.

The tour guide was excited to have a kid in the group and at the end, took K back into the lab so she could hold several 30 million year old fossils—amazing.

K examines a thirty million year old vertebrae from the Thunderbird