Friday, 27 July 2012

A warm wind blows through the Gulf savannah, sending fresh plumes of bulldust into the air. The dust chokes you, the heat is intense, the flies downright annoying. Welcome to Cape York.

Well we’ve made it as far as Coen, a one-pub town about halfway up Cape York, after driving some 500km from Cairns, most of it on unsealed, potholed, dusty ‘roads’ – although creek beds would probably be a more apt description.

The rainforest of the east coast has given way to eucalyptus , tussock, and rock, and the clouds to a bright blue sky and blazing sunshine. This is winter, but it’s 30 degrees in the shade. Even the crocs look hot.

Yip, we finally saw one – a little freshie, not more than a metre long, lazing on a rock in the sunshine. Freshwater crocodiles are mean to be harmless, unlike their estuarine cousins, but we gave it a wide berth all the same.

Along the trail we stopped in at Cooktown, Queen of the North they say, where Captain Cook beached his Endeavour when in need of repairs in 1770 something. He was the first white man the locals had ever seen, and when he sailed away again he was the last they saw for another 90 years.

A gold rush in the late 1880s soon changed all that, and for a while Cooktown had 30 pubs and 100 brothels (or it might have been the other way around). No more though – it’s now got about three pubs and I couldn’t see any brothels, although I must admit I didn’t investigate this.

The girlfriend and I stopped in for a meal and a game of pool at the Top Pub (we were rubbish) where the cook produced the finest chicken curry we’d had in years. Turns out she was Indonesian. A reminder that Cooktown is actually closer to Jakarta than it is to Sydney.

Cooktown is the end of ‘civilisation’ when you’re heading to Cape York – from there it’s a jarring, dusty, and sometimes hair-raising 700km or so to the top of Australia, where we’re headed.

The old Laura Homestead, on the road from

Cooktown to the Telegraph Track

So far all the creeks we’ve had to cross haven’t been more than half a metre deep, which is really good, since our Chuckie isn’t equipped with a snorkel – de rigeur in these parts. But we’ve had our fair share of bumps and bangs, yet so far fingers crossed, Chuckie just keeps on truckin’.

Tonight sees us by the banks of the Coen River, in a little free camping spot with a swimming hollow. We asked a local aboriginal if there were any crocodiles and she roared with laughter. “Nah, you’re sweet’’ she said.

Good-oh, we replied, leaping in.

“You’s might want to watch out for those water snakes though,’’ she added with a grin. She tells us three weeks ago a young girl needed to be airlifted to hospital after being bitten by a snake exactly where we were swimming.

Bugger it, it’s 30 degrees, we’ll take our chances, we reply.

Tomorrow it’s on to the start of the fabled Overland Telegraph Line, the OTL, and the route to the top of Australia. 

Monday, 23 July 2012

Today we went from the sublime to the ridiculous and then back to the sublime.

Such is Queensland - one minute it's over-the-top tourist hell on earth, the next you're in the middle of nowhere with some small-town cobber offering to buy you a beer.

Since we left Townsville a few days ago we've had three fantastic nights camping in state and national parks, at minimal cost ($10 for a campsite is the going rate in a national park). The first night was in Murray Falls, a gorgeous grassy spot by a waterfall complete with swimming hollow around 100km north of Townsville.

From there we pushed on north up the Bruce Highway before heading up onto the Atherton Tablelands - an incredible, vast area of tropical rainforest and farm land, rivers and lakes, all around 800m above sea level.

Camping at Fong On Bay, Dunbarra State Park

We spent the night at Henrietta Creek, another great national park spot. I'd barely switched off Chuck the Truck when this woman in a velour tracksuit came stamping towards us. And I mean stamping.

Boy, she's mad, I thought. I wonder if I ran over her dog?

"I don't know if you're the nervous type,'' she said. I assured her I wasn't.

"It's just that I saw a 6 ft red bellied black snake go past where you're planning to camp.''

"Oh,'' I replied. "Are they, erm, poisonous?''

"Very,'' she replied with a look of grim satisfaction, and stamped off.

Apparently stamping lets the snake know you're there, although I would have thought it was pretty obvious already.

We decided to stay anyway, and put up the tent with a lot of stamping.

Next thing, an old bloke stops by our camp in his 4WD.

"Well are ya coming to the pub with me or not?'' he asks as by way of an opener.

Murray Falls

Since we'd only met that second, I politely declined. "Well can I get you anything while I'm there? I've got a few numbers to check on in a raffle.''

Well, actually, we didn't have any tonic, if he wouldn't mind?

"Hold on, I've got some of that in the back of the bus,'' he says, disappearing for a minute before returning and proffering a full bottle of Schweppes' finest.

I try to give him $5 but he waves it away. Well, what he actually says is: "Nah, stick it up your bum.'' Which I decide was his way of saying it was a gift.

The following day we drove across the tablelands before arriving at a gorgeous and virtually empty lakeside campsite, called Fong-on Bay. A local wag had changed the 'F' to a 'B' so it read Bong-on Bay, which I thought was pretty funny.

Me and the golden gumboot in Tully, Australia's wettest town where 

7.9m of rain fell in 1950

A fire beside the lake under a starry sky - life doesn't get much better.

Today we descended briefly into tourist hell when we came out of the tablelands and down into Cairns and Port Douglas. Suddenly we were surrounded by camera-toting tour bus loads full of pasty gawping tourists on day trips from their hotels in the surrounding area. We got out as fast as we could.

We found a tent site at Wonga Beach, a tiny little settlement just short of Daintree, about 60km north of Cairns, near the start of the Bloomfield Track, a notorious 4WD only 'short cut' to Cooktown, the last stop on the public highway before the roads turn from bitumen to gravel as we head towards Cape York.

Of course we're going to take the short cut.

Still no crocs, but the woman at the campground advised us not to go swimming, as they have been sighted around here. There's also warning signs everywhere, which puts a bit of a dampener on the sunset beach strolls.

More soon, assuming there's mobile phone service further north.

A friendly butterfly was keen on our breakfast

Thursday, 19 July 2012

I love Townsville.

There, I've said it. I have to admit it wasn't a sentence I ever thought I'd utter, but then again, Townsville was hardly what I expected.

Townsville, capital of North Queensland

We arrived in the North Queensland capital wet and bedraggled after five days in the pouring rain in what I shall only ever refer to as the WetSundays.

These picturesque islands of white-sand beaches, turquoise waters, and sunny skies look fantastic - in the brochures. In real life, the Whitsundays were a massive disappointment. It was like camping on the West Coast of the South Island, only wetter.

And without the great beer.

I've got a theory about the Whitsundays. I reckon the tourism organisations photograph these beaches on the  one day that month when the sun is shining, and then act shocked and surprised when you turn up and the weather's crap.

"Nah mate, this is really unusual .... you should have been here last week'' was the stock response to my pleading as to why we were drowning in downpours of biblical proportions during the laughingly-called Dry Season.

Our campsite on Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island

You know things are getting bad when you discover your jeans are covered in mould.

At least we were camping. I felt really sorry for the Kiwis who'd forked out thousands for their one week winter holiday escape from the cold of New Zealand. Go to Fiji or Raro next time, fellas.

Anyway, I digress. After five days and nights we were rescued, returned to the mainland, were reunited with Chuck the Truck, and floored it in the direction of Townsville.

Barry our boat driver clears out, leaving us to our fate on Whitehaven Beach

Now my knowledge of Townsville went something like this: Hick North Queensland town, home of the Cowboys NRL team, nothing else to see.

Boy was I wrong. Townsville's gorgeous. This quaint yet somehow slightly hip city of 180,000 people is full of cool art deco buildings, palm trees, amazing beaches, hip cafes, trendy boutiques, and decent bars.

Townsville, with Castle Hill in the background

On top of that it boasts 325 days a year of sunshine. That alone was enough to impress me.

If you're ever up this way, check out Castle Hill - an incredible 1000m high rock formation that commands a stunning view across the town and the surrounding bays. It reminded me a lot of Napier. There was a 'goat track' you walked up to the top - 1200 steps straight up.

We fetched up at a B&B where for the past two days we've worn out their washing machine and hung the entire contents of our truck - including the tent and airbeds - on the washing line.

Tomorrow, finally dry and warm, we'll hit the road again, heading for Mission Beach, which is apparently a cute little coastal town on the way to Queensland's party capital of Cairns, gateway to the Far North. Then it's on to Cooktown and Cape York,

Haven't seen a croc yet, much to my disappointment. Still, plenty of time - and plenty of crocs where we're going.

Townsville's main beach

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Question: When is the 'Dry Season' in Queensland?

Answer: Any time Colin's not there.

Yes folks, it's raining the proverbial cats and dogs here in sunny Queensland. And it hasn't let up since we got here. The locals are amazed - up here in the Whitsundays they've had five times the average July rainfall, and it's only the 12th of the month.

Me, I'm not in the least bit surprised. I've always had this uncanny ability to bring bad weather. Ask anyone who knows me. I turn up, and the rain clouds follow.

I'm really popular at summer picnics and barbecues.

It's not all bad though. We've driven so far north that it's finally warm. Well, warmish anyway.

We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn the other day - 23 degrees south of equator - at Rockhampton, or Rocky as it's affectionately known and officially entered subtropical Queensland. It was pissing down at the time.

Rocky is a funny place, all V8s and cowboy hats. Unsurprising, given it's the beef capital of Australia. I bet you didn't know there were 2.5 million cows within a 200km radius of Rockhampton. Well, now you do.

We pretty much drove straight through anyway, since we were on the way to Airlie Beach, gateway to the Whitsundays, or the Wetsundays as I've decided to call them.

Koumala, on the Bruce Highway

It's raining so hard though that we can't get our boat out to Whitehaven Island, where we've booked five nights in a Queensland national parks campsite - the whole wilderness experience.

It sounds great. You have to take everything with you, even your own drinking water. And you have to take everything out too. And I mean everything.

The beach looks incredible too. At least, it does in the brochure. I'll let you know if we actually see it.

After we left Fraser Island, we treated ourselves to a night in a backpackers at Rainbow Beach (I can't believe I just wrote that) which is a sleepy little town at Inskip Point, which is where you take the barge to Fraser Island, before hightailing it north to Bundaberg. Yes, that's where they make the ginger beer. And the rum.

We had a bit of an enforced stop in Bundaberg, owing to this rather large crack in our windscreen that grew as the miles progressed. It might have had something to do with a creek that the girl "didn't see'' in the dark, which we hit with a wee bit of a bang.

Or it might not.

Anyway, we got Chuckie a new windscreen and headed on up to Agnes Water, a gorgeous little pinprick of a town a couple of hundred km north of Bundaberg. It's also the very last place you can go surfing on Australia's eastern seaboard. After that, the Great Barrier reef stops you. And the sharks, stingers, and crocs.

So of course we had to have a quick surf, even though it was still raining!

Me after a hiding in the surf

Then it was back on the Bruce Highway (I love the names Australians give their roads - Bruce Highway, Stuart Highway, Murray Highway...Gidday Bruce, Stu, Muzza...) and north to Airlie.

Airlie Beach is one of those resort towns where everyone's waiting to leave. As the gateway to the Whitsundays, there's not a lot to do here when it's raining. Besides drink, and watch the rain.

My girlfriend Katie shows how it's done

We did have some light entertainment last night when the tent's awning collapsed under the weight of all the water. It fell on top of our gas lantern, simultaneously smashing the light and burning a nice lantern-shaped hole in the tent awning. Whoops.

Fingers crossed it finally stops raining tomorrow so we can go live out our desert island dream.

Small town Queensland

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Talk about jumping in the deep end.

Until a couple of days ago, we hadn’t taken Chuck The Truck off the tarmac, much less a gravel road. And certainly not through a sand dune. Fraser Island does that to you.

It’s not like you’ve got much choice. Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand dune, measuring some 120km in length and 20km in width.

Fraser Island car wash!

It’s also the greatest sandpit on earth for boys and their toys.

I’d never seen anything like it. Vast stretches of open beach, as far as the eye can see, waves washing in on one side, sand cliffs eroded by the tide on the other, and you just go barreling straight up the middle.


The beach is the main thoroughfare here on Fraser Island. Which is lucky, as there’s no roads. Unless you count boggy, sandy, inland tracks that until a couple of days ago I wouldn’t have thought you could walk down, let alone drive along.

Let’s just say we’re no longer off-road virgins.

This morning was a bit hair-raising though. I had an 11am appointment with Radio Live’s Weekend Variety Wireless with Wallace Chapman, standing in for the redoubtable Graeme Hill – a gig I’ve been doing for years, and love it.

Anyway, there’s only one point on the whole island with phone reception, and it was a good 50km south of our campsite.

Lake MacKenzie, Fraser Island

So we started barreling down the beach towards radio reception when I realized the tide was nowhere near as far out as it should have been. Which was why we were the only vehicle on the beach. I wondered where everyone else was.

We ended up wave-running down the beach, which is an extremely dodgy practice whereby you have to time your runs between each sweep of the tide, and hope you squeak through between the sea water and the cliff face before the next wave.

Sometimes you've just got to lie back and take it

We did, but not without a couple of broadsides from the tide. At one point, I had to stop and wait for a massive wave to finish breaking right over our truck, as I couldn’t see a thing.

So much for not getting salt water on a vehicle. Oh well, there’s always car washes, right? I made it to air, anyhow.

We spent the rest of the day happily rambling around the island’s tracks, visiting pristine fresh water lakes, of which Fraser Island has plenty. They’re called perched lakes, formed by rainwater and rising water table filtering through leaves from the rainforest, between the inland sand dunes.

The best was Lake Mackenzie – white-sand beach, rainforest, and beautiful clear water. I went for a swim, but the girl chickened out. It’s still not that warm, despite the fact we’re now at 26 degrees south of the equator.

So now we’ve crossed the Noosa River in a barge, driven up the Cooloola Way (basically a beach) to magnificent Rainbow Beach, with its multi-coloured sands, got another barge across to Fraser, and I’m now sitting in our tent next to our gas lantern writing this.

Tomorrow we’ve got to retrace our steps to the barge at the southern point of Fraser to Inskip Point, before rejoining civilization and the highway north to Hervey Bay, Town of 1770, and Airlie Beach, where we’ll get a ferry to Whitehaven Island in the WhitSundays.

We notched up 2000km today since leaving Sydney just under two weeks ago.

I really wish I'd bought BP shares. 

Dusk, Fraser Island

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

I'd like to tell you how great Brisbane is.

River City, Queensland capital, town of many hills, trees, malls, and men wearing walk socks.

I'd like to, but I can't, because I really didn't see much of it. I was busy getting Chuckie a nip and tuck.

Well, a face lift to be exact. And, ah, a bum lift too.
You see, when we bought our truck for our journey around Australia it looked just fine. But when we loaded 72 metric tonnes of junk into the back and on the roof, it rather sagged somewhat.

At first I tried to ignore it. But after scraping the rear end over half the motorways in NSW there was no getting around the fact that if the truck bottomed out on the freeway, it probably wasn't going to handle Cape   York or the Gibb River Road.

So while the girl took in the sights of the fair city, I drove 70km back down the freeway to a suspension specialist who kindly fitted Chuckie was some extra heavy duty rear lift to put a bit of a spring back in his step.

Chuckie on the beach at Minnie Water

Chris, the bloke at the suspension place on the Gold Coast, could only shake his head when I limped in.

"Bloody hell, what have you got in the back?''

I explained that we had decided to take the entire contents of a two-bedroom house around the continent.

The process of explaining this identified myself as a Kiwi, however, and a half-hour of hilarious jokes followed, mostly involving romantic propositions with sheep. It never ceases to amaze me just how funny Australians think sheep jokes are.

Fortunately Chris was better at his day job than he was at stand-up comedy and soon I was heading north to the next appointment, a bull bar fitting in north Brisbane.

This involved some 90 km of freeway driving, during which I both sang along to Little River Band's greatest hits to my heart's content and marveled at the difference between NSW and Queensland roads. Seriously, you cross the border and the freeway goes from two lanes to six.

Why is it that NSW can't build a four-lane road, I wondered. Probably the same reason it can't make the trains run on time or produce electricity for under $100 a megawatt.

Anyway, Chuckie got his nip and tuck, and a shiny new bull bar. So now we're covered if we hit any bulls.

So far we've done just over 1300km and we've only been on the road a week. After leaving the isolation of Minnie Water at the end of my previous post we camped a night in Byron Bay, where we paid $A40 for a patch of gravel masquerading as a camp site in the local holiday park.

Byron Bay at sunset

The tea cosy-wearing hippies are still in Byron Bay, but corporate Australia is taking over fast. There's more designer surf shops than you can shake a skateboard at and resort style accommodation is becoming the norm.

I love the vibe there, though. There's something about Byron Bay. It could be its magnificent setting; a wide sweeping bay, a sheltered, safe swimming beach and gorgeous sunrises courtesy of its location as the Australian mainland's most easterly point.

Or it could just be  that extra-strong double soy latte I had.

Tomorrow we're headed for Noosa on the Sunshine Coast before tracking up the beach to Rainbow Beach and Fraser Island, the world's largest sand dune apparently.

Fraser Island sounds pretty cool. It's the only sand dune in the world that supports a rain forest. It's also something like 100km long. The entire place is accessible only by 4WD (and a boat, obviously) and the Queensland parks service operates camp grounds around the island. We've booked one for the princely sum of $A10 a night.

I'm a little nervous about driving on the beach, having heard all the horror stories about getting stuck as the tide's coming in. But it also sounds like a whole lotta fun.

I thought after that we'd pop up the road to Cairns, which I figured would only take a day or two until I realised it was 1700km north of Brisbane.

Australia is a seriously big country.