Thursday, 27 August 2015

Townsville to the northern tip

Yellow route: Townsville to the tip - 2180 km
White route: total so far - 31'680 km

We left Townsville fully stocked but with no defined travel plan. The direction was all we knew – North. Free camping along the coasts is fairly difficult – what we experienced in WA earlier during our travels is also true for Queensland. Nevertheless we found a pleasant beach-camping option with a lot of privacy at Crystal Creek, South of Ingham. Paluma national park offers excellent swimming opportunities but we both are wimps when it comes to chilly water. Hence we didn’t take the chance to dip. On the other hand we enjoyed exploring the Tyto Wetlands in Ingham in the afternoon heat even though there was not too much wildlife at this time of the day. Still, we were lucky enough to observe some Crimson Finches and a Azure Kingfisher which is an absolute beauty.

 Swimming hole in Paluma national park

 The excellent Tyto Wetlands information centre

More hiking was to come in Girringun national park with the Wallaman Falls, the longest single-drop waterfall in Australia at 305m and lots of water torrenting down into the gorge. Cardwell, the pleasant beach town and departure point for Hinchinbrook Island, was hit badly by hurricane Yasi in 2011. And so was probably the 26km forest drive to several waterholes in the area , which turned out not to be worth doing under these circumstances.

 Wallaman Falls

Cardwell beach with Hinchinbrook Island in the background

Innisfail has a few historic buildings in Art Deco style which are beautifully restored. We enjoyed the architectural walk through this small town. It is rather a town where people work and live than a tourist place. From there we spontaneously deviated from the coast to the Atherton Tablelands to meet up with a lovely family from Newcastle we met in March in Southern WA. Kristen, Julian, Sam and James spent a few days in Malanda and we were grateful that they invited us to come their way. Not only were we spoilt with a first-class BBQ dinner and excellent company but got to explore a wonderful lush green countryside and numerous waterfalls in the tropical rainforest. The landscape is picturesque with „normal“ cows like Holsteins amongst other milk cattle and reminded us in parts of Gippsland in Victoria and New Zealand. A welcoming change to all the skinny Zebu cattle we passed in the last 4 months. The lushness of the meadows was a result of regular, significant rains in the previous 6 weeks. In fact, we seemed to have timed it perfectly with the sun being back in this area. The nights up in the tablelands (approx. 600-800 metres above sea level) were quite chilly (6-8°C).
Although a big tourist attraction we had to go and see two most impressive fig trees (Curtain Fig, Cathedral Fig) and did a pleasant drive along Lake Tinaroo with very peaceful camping apart from the early morning fright I got in the toilet block, being watched by a thick and almost 4 metres long python!
Driving down from the tablelands was very scenic. Next we hiked a „real“ mountain for a change: after close to 1000 vertical metres to the top of Walshs Pyramid we were rewarded by stunning views of the Cairns region and the Tablelands. 

 Art Deco architecture in Innisfail

Atherton Tablelands

Johnston River lookout

 One of many waterfalls in the Tablelands

 Very impressive curtain fig tree

 Camping at Lake Tinaroo

 Python in the amenities – fortunately not venomous

 Magnificent views from the summit of Walshs Pyramid

We stopped for a night in Cairns to catch up with Kate and Lindsay, another Aussie couple we met on the Gibb River Road when our radiator leaked for the first time (Lindsay was the one who offered us the putty to repair the radiator, which lasted for about 8’000 km). They were on their way back from Cape York and gave us the latest „tips on the Tip“. Again, it was a very pleasant evening. 

The next 4 days we stayed in Port Douglas and got ourselves into a different challenge: we had booked a speech trainer and took private lessons with the goal to sound a bit less Swiss (especially me) when we speak English. At the same time we broadened our knowledge of typical Australian expressions, behaviour, life style and tropical delicacies. After four days we also found our favourite cafe which not only served decent coffee but nice muffins and light lunches – Cafe Ecco. This was heaven and we enjoyed it even more knowing that on our way to the top there would not be too many places like this…..

 Doing homework at the campground in Port Douglas

Port Douglas – beach

As a run-up for the OTT (see below) we attacked the Old Coach road in the Palmer River Goldfields that runs between the gold mining ghost town of Maytown and the township of Laura. It sounded interesting although rated as difficult in our Hema 4WD Adventures book. We assumed that it can’t be too demanding as it was built and used by horse-drawn coaches in the early days. In Maytown itself there was not much to see as people took everything with them when they left the place in 1945. The drive in, 80km West off the Peninsula Development road was quite hilly and scenic. After crossing a dry riverbed the track started to get really tricky: steep climbs on rocky surface onto a ridge;  on the downhills we had to deal with big rock steps and awkward off-camber situations. It was very slow going and when a young guy stopped us to tell that he tipped over his camper trailer twice on the Northern part we had to reconsider. The next passage also didn’t look promising, so we set camp and called it a day. The next morning we decided to turn back and accompanied the somehow traumatised young couple in finding an alternative route out of this „playground“. Sometimes it’s more difficult to say „stop“ than to say „go“ but it certainly was the right decision.

 This is all what remains from the Palmer River Goldfields capital – Maytown

 Steep up and down-hills

The couple wich would have wished to travel without the camper trailer......

We backtracked and made our way through Laura, the magnificent Split Rock Aboriginal rock art and the scenic Lakefield national park with wonderful wildlife (first opportunity to observe a long neck turtle at length) up to the Bramwell Roadhouse Junction, the southern end of the Old Telegraph Track (OTT). 

 Split rock – impressive Aboriginal rock art
very long neck.....

This legendary 4WD experience starts with one of the most challenging crossings, Palm Creek, if not for the deep water but for the very steep entry and exit banks. We consider this being a good thing as it sets the mark and it’s then up to each driver to weigh up whether his skills and vehicle are up for this or not. Already two kilometres later, at Ducie Creek, we got a dilemma whether we should walk the long waterhole, filled with brown murky water or not. Following the 4WD rules it’s a YES of course but then the owner of Archer River Roadhouse reminded us that there are crocodiles („salties“) up there and we should definitely only walk through clear water – hence a NO without doubt. We slowly drove through and fortunately there were no big holes or rocks the water level was moderate and the ground was firm. We set camp at the charming Dulhunty River for a quiet night. The next day we didn’t even attempt to drive Gunshot Creek, but took the Bypass road and drove the 5km back (very narrow for Kasbah) to this legendary — and infamous — spot where we just missed the big action. A group of – let’s call them The Hooligans – with rough cars (one even without windows) had used the area as a playground. It must have been quite a spectacle when they came down the sheer walls! They were now ahead of us, so we got a taste of their driving and behaviour further up. This is the reason why we dare calling them The Hooligans. They met every single cliché (don’t want to go into details here) but were still friendly. 

 Palm Creek crossing, the first challenge on the OTT

 Walk through or rather not ?

 Always. Is the answer for some fearless people

 A Hooligan car

 A Hooligan couple – it's 10am and already beer o'clock

Looking at the slopes and drops at Gunshot it is not quite inconceivable how one can drive this. Amazingly scary!

Gunshot Creek entry slopes – different options, all scary!

The water level of Cockatoo Creek was not very high and the water clear, so it was easy to walk the crossing and investigate the best line. After that we were very glad for The Hooligans to walk through a long deepish and brown waterhole. We watched four different ways of doing the crossing and chose the best one for ourselves. The famous and pretty Fruit Bat Falls were a very welcoming swimming opportunity for our tense bodies. The crossings of course are demanding but for us most of the stretches between those were challenging and asked for full-on concentration as Kasbah is higher and wider than most vehicles on this track and is also more sensitive to off-camber situations. We camped at Canal Creek, an obviously very popular overnight stop. The next morning it was drizzling when we had a look at the picturesque Eliot and Twin Falls. From here the track got even more challenging, the banks steeper, the crossings deeper but luckily with clear water. The entrance into Canal Creek was rather rough, steep and off-camber again and Oliver did some adjustment to the ramp with the showel and so it never got dangerous at any point in time. After a scary log bridge (no weight limit declared…) a rather shallow crossing (with no name). After this we got a bit nervous for Nolan’s Brook as some people advised us not to attempt it with Kasbah. To turn back and take the bypass road would have meant to do four of the just passed crossings in the opposite direction which would have been more than challenging if not impossible without a winch. Kasbah showed the many spectators that Nolan’s Brook was a piece of cake! 
The spot with its swimming holes was so nice that we set up camp shortly after lunch and in the evening we cheered with some lovely people we met on the track for completing the legendary OTT — we made it!
After that it was in parts a very heavily corrugated road to the tip of Cape York where we enjoyed the beautiful landscape and the remoteness at Cable Beach for two nights.

 Eliot Falls

 Canal Creek crossing – Kasbah

 Canal Creek – Troopy, Jeremie's 4WD

 The log bridge

 A typical off-camber situation we had to deal with severeal times a day

 Jetty at Seisha

 Getting to the coconut water is quite a job. Hence well deserved drink!

 Sun downer at Cable Beach with Kathryn and Jeremy. Two Kiwis we met on the OTT

Northernmost point of the Australian continent

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Darwin to Townsville

Yellow route: Darwin to Townsville - 3580 km
Total so far: 29'500 km

Darwin was the place where Kasbah got a set of new tyres as mentioned in the last post. But this was not the only reason to spend an entire week in the capital of the Northern Territory. Both of us have been to Darwin more than 20 years ago and wanted to see the change. In fact the development was so significant that we didn’t recognised much – or might this be due to our bad memories? We don’t hope so.
Exciting moments for Kasbah - a set of brand new tyres (BF Goodrich KO2)

Darwin has a lot to offer. Not only a very nice climate in the dry season but also various cultural events, good restaurants and cafes, pleasant bicycle paths, a nice waterfront, vibrant markets, the fantastic Alexandre lake and just a very relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere wherever you go. We just loved it. The two highlights were the unforgettable sunset at Mindil Beach together with the lively market and the play Australia Day by Jonathan Biggins in Brown’s Mart Theatre. 

 Sunset at Mindil Beach in Darwin

Another wonderful latte

After we had indulged the city life enough, we went back to nature. And where else would be better than Kakadu national park? Even before entering Kakadu we saw stunning wildlife in the Southern Alligator region: on the sunset tour at Corroboree Billabong, at Anggardabal Billabong and from the Mamukala Birdhide. We declared the Rainbow Bee-eater, which is abundant in this area, as one of our most loved birds. 

 Corroboree Billabong with eagle and crocodile

 The cute jacana with his huge "feet" is able to walk on the water lillies

Anggardabal Billabong

In Kakadu we got into Aboriginal culture once more. Not only for the impressive, numerous rock-art sites but also for our excursion to the Art Centre in Gunbalanya, West Arnhemland. You need a permit to enter this area which offers a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. The Art Centre exhibits a firework of extraordinary paintings on bark, canvas or paper; colourful weaving works out of Pandanus fibres; wonderful printed patterns on silk or cotton, which a workshop for disabled people in Cambodia turns into hip bags, shirts, scarfs and more. 

 New painting from the artist Gabriel in Gunbalanya

Workshop where the prints on fabrics are made

Women preparing the pandanus fibres

After the almost-too-popular but still wonderful sunset at Ubirr we joined a ranger talk at Nourlangie (Burrunggui) which gave us much more information than just the details about the rock arts. Christian, the ranger, is a remarkable personality, very knowledgable and in deep admiration of the traditional life and languages of the Aborigines. His enthusiasm for the archeology of the area and the flora and fauna used as signposts for the transitions between the six seasons by the Bininj / Mungguy people, was infectious. This prompted us to stay in the area for another night to join a talk at Nanguluwur site he held the next day. To round off this traditional cultural experience, we joined the Animal Tracks tour, led by an Aboriginal woman who introduced us to bush tucker and Aboriginal life in the bush. We dug for bush carrots, freshwater mussels and water chestnuts, learned how to prepare buffalo and magpie goose (after we plucked the animal ourselves) the Aboriginal way in a ground oven, and enjoyed all this accompanied by some freshly baked damper. What a treat – especially eating it in a magic spot in the wetlands at sunset! 
We loved walking around the various billabongs, in the monsoon forest and through the wetlands. Best camping was next to Sandy Billabong. Gunlom Falls was our last destination in Kakadu before heading to the oft-suggested Edith Falls. The good reputation leads to big crowds but it is still an excellent spot for swimming in various pools.

 Impressive Aboriginal rock art

 Stunning view from Ubirr towards Arnhemland

 Christian the ranger

Sandy Billabong

 Magpie geese – alive

 Magpie goose – dead

 Magpie geese – ready for the ground oven

 Dinner in the ground oven

 Damper – Yummie

 Waterhole at Gunlom Falls

Longpool at Edith Falls, we had them to ourselves

Next, we passed Mataranka and couldn’t resist to have another dip in the fabulous Bitter Springs. From there we followed the Savannah Way, mostly a remote dirt track with its most interesting part being the Limmen national park. Not a firework of highlights like in Litchfield and Kakdu but still remarkable places such as Butterfly Springs, where a Jabiru had a rest and was not bothered by us, and the Southern Lost City which can be explored by an attractively designed walking track. 

Fantastic Bitter Springs

Walking track through the Lost City rock formations

After one and a half months in the Northern Territory we crossed the border into Queensland, for the first time on this trip. We started with the indisputable highlight: Boodjamulla national park (Lawn Hill) and camping in the lush greens at Adels Grove. We did several walking tracks to see the lower and upper Gorges and enjoyed the so far best paddling in the afternoon sun through the Gorge to Indarra Falls and even further up. 

 Adels Grove

 Paddling in a peaceful Gorge is very relaxing – Lawn Hill

Lawn Hill region

We changed our initial plan to leave the Savannah Way and head directly up to Cape York via the Burke Developmental Road and the Dixie Track, because our radiator definitely needed a replacement before we do more rough stuff. By that time we had a new radiator  waiting for us in Townsville. 
Therefore we followed the Savannah Way to Georgtown, then explored some of the gold-rush towns on the way towards Charters Towers, which was once the second-largest and wealthiest town of Queensland. Some of the wealth can still be seen today in beautifully preserved 19th-century buildings. The land is currently pretty dry and the drive through this outback uneventful if not for the poor animals gathering around the remaining waterholes.

There was more to do in Townsville than replacing the radiator, which we did today successfully. It’s again a fantastic city for cycling along the Ross River for bird life, up the Castle Hill for magnificent views and along the Strand for people watching. Unfortunately we couldn’t find another of the cool cafes which we normally locate through the Lonely Planet guide book but got decent Thai food instead.

 19th-century building in Charters Towers

 Mural in Charters Towers

 The Strand – Townsville

View of Townsville from Castle Hill