July 30, 2010

Mrs Magpie

You will know, if you've read my Fast Forward post, that there is an Australian Magpie nesting in the bottle tree just beyond our bedroom window. Nest construction now seems to be complete. We have seen no new material going in recently, and she appears to be just sitting in it and surveying the park...

I must just go off at a tangent for a moment. I was speaking to Brisbane City Council and I discovered the name of the park - Waterline Crescent Park. All street names in the immediate vicinity are watery. We're very close to the river, see? We live in Tide Lane, which is just off Shore Crescent. But the park has an address. How cute is that? So, should you want to send the park a postcard, or Mrs Magpie, it's Waterline Crescent Park, 81 Waterline Crescent Park, Bulimba. OK, so it's a bit repetitive, but I like it.

It seemed very early to me to be building a nest. It is winter here still, not spring, but in northern parts of Australia breeding can start as early as June. Now Mrs M is sitting, I'm wondering if there are any eggs. If there are, I may miss the really exciting bit – I'll be in the UK for a good part of August. Eggs hatch about three weeks after being laid, and the young leave the nest about four weeks after that.

We'll have to watch out if we're watching them. Australian Magpies are famous for swooping at walkers and cyclists who they deem to be a threat, and they are especially territorial during the breeding season. The binoculars from the hide in the bedroom might be a better idea than a walk in the park.

These birds are also noted for their singing, which is usually described as carolling. According to a most useful website I've just found, climatewatch.org.au (which has really useful tips for distinguishing all the black and white birds I mention below), they have one of the world's most complex bird songs. Their voice is powerful and they have a truly extraordinary range, from high and quite piercing to low and mellow. Since they tend to live in groups, they sing together, too, and that really is a sound to behold. This was part of my diary on Monday, May 10th: 'As I sat writing this morning, I was privileged to witness the most amazing Magpie duet. Powerful, soaring, flowing notes from a pair on the TV aerial of a house opposite. I watched their little heads bobbing and their throats vibrating, in turn. What a spectacle. What a marvel. Very Gary Newman, Are "Friends" Electric.' I had to go outside and listen properly. I was very moved.

Their tunes sometimes resemble one of the English football chants, but I haven't been able to identify it yet. I must sing it to my elder daughter's boyfriend. The birds' other favourite is one-hit wonder Joan Osborne's '(What if God was) One of Us'. Don't worry, I'm still sane... and more than ever convinced, having witnessed the Magpies' awesome performances, that we don't need fairies at the bottom of our garden.

Australian Magpies were obviously named after their European lookalikes, but in fact are a different family of Passeriformes. There are a bewildering number of black and white birds in Australia and I still haven't got a handle on it. I know there are Magpie Larks and Currawongs and Butcherbirds, and Australian Magpies are closely related to the latter two. So closely, in fact, that when we had a breakfast visitor in May, I assumed it was a Magpie. But no. This splendid chap is... I think... a Pied Butcherbird, who wasn't partial to grapefruit.

July 27, 2010

Roadtrip 2: 'Where the rainforest meets the sea'

I have recently discovered that not everyone agrees with my 'One of the best beaches in the world' nominations. For me, a candidate has to have pale, largely unblemished sand, and a slightly semicircular swathe of it, ideally. It can have some rocks, but not be rocky, or pebbly, or gravelly. And I don't do black sand, however volcanically interesting. My beach should not have seaweed in the shallows or edging the high-water mark. It can have shells, coral debris or other interesting detritus, but not dead-fish bits. And it absolutely must not have any stingers, alive or dead, however small. It should not slope much, or shelve too steeply beneath the waves. Preferably, it will be palm-fringed or rainforest-backed; but cliffs and headlands are fine, just not the best.

And now we come to the more disputed aspect - the sea. I don't particularly want the waves to be large and forceful. They can boom and crash and thunder; I just won't be part of their action. I no more want to throw myself into them, dive over or through them, ride them or fight them, than leave the beach. But neither do I want them to fold, limply, on to the sand so that there is barely a distinguishable line between water and land. I don't want an almost imperceptible shshshing sound: I want the comforting, unthreatening, rhythmic, lilting song of breaking waves. The water should be blue - deep or turquoise - or sea green, but not slate grey. It should be clean and clear and not in the least bit slimy or oily. And, above all, it should be body-warm.

The crux of the matter, I think, is what you want from a beach. Fun and games, sport or fitness, quiet relaxation, contemplation or soul-searching. Most of us probably use beaches for all of these things at one time or another. Any particular activity doesn't always require the same conditions: soul-soothing may require bright-and-sunny warmth one day and empathetic tempestuousness the next.
And now, back on the road...
The Mamu Rainforest Canopy Walkway is a fairly new (2-year-old) attraction that hasn't made it into all the guidebooks yet. It's 30km west of Innisfail, off the Palmerston Highway. An elevated walkway leads to a 37-metre-high observation tower, so you can really feel in amongst the rainforest trees and plants (fab ferns, above, and lichen mosaic, below) while also enjoying far-reaching views of the North Johnstone River gorge (next picture but one below) and the dense World Heritage forest slopes. The walk is particularly well signed about the establishment and regeneration of rainforest and the symbiotic relationships between rainforest species.

I have communed with Queensland's rainforests on a number of occasions, at canopy level and on the ground, in dry rainforest and wet. It is always a fascinating experience and only really disappoints in one, albeit fairly major, area - the wildlife. It is extremely difficult to see animals going about their business in the rainforest, for fairly obvious reasons. Few animals are about when most tourists trundle through, especially if they're nocturnal. To see birds at their most active, for example, you need to go early in the morning, or at dusk. You occasionally see ground foragers and quick flashes of birds in flight, but it's virtually impossible to see through the canopy if they're at rest on high branches. You can hear them calling, but that just adds to the frustration if you can't identify the singer or the song. And many animals hide themselves away in the heat of the day. The rainforest may be an absolute riot after dark, but that's not when you're allowed in.

But the worst problem by far is noise. A little rainforest wallaby isn't going to hop across the path with its joey if there's a troupe of chattering visitors marching along it. Pademelons are shy creatures. And a lot of people do seem to walk very quickly, discussing all manner of things - and I know because I can usually hear every word - except the wonderful things they might see if they'd only shut up.

In Mossman Gorge, a woman dressed in sports gear and trainers overtook us quickly and in determined fashion. She was a woman on a mission. After a while she passed us again, this time going in the opposite direction, and was obviously using the walk as part of her fitness regime. Well, that's all well and good for her but preferably not while I'm creeping along like a mouse, trying desperately to spot something moving in the foliage. My friend and I probably look like a couple of eccentrics. We wander very slowly, putting our feet down with great care, especially on noisy gravel paths. We stand and stare. We point a lot and use other hand signals so that if there are any animals or birds nearby, they won't be startled by our presence. If the information centre says a walk normally takes about an hour, then we probably have to add at least half as much again because our progress is exceedingly slow. But I haven't come half way around the globe just to see brush turkeys in the carpark. I'm going to make an effort.

Below: a rather fine Brush Turkey in the carpark at Mary Cairncross Reserve (not on this trip)
We put our foot down as we headed back to the Bruce Highway and north towards Cairns. We didn't bypass Cairns as we had Townsville (the two are fierce rivals to be the capital of northern Queensland: local rivalries in Australia is another story). A brief foray along the Esplanade failed to jog my memory at all, however. I had wanted my friend to get a feel for the place, but we quickly decided to move on to the northern beaches, in particular Palm Cove, recommended by a friend in Brisbane.
Palm Cove is pretty hip: with spa resorts every few metres, top restaurants, jewellery and art boutiques, it seems to be all about indulgence and appearances. We caught a brief glimpse as we stopped for coffee. The white-sand beach looks pretty appealing until you spot the signs. As my friend captioned the picture below when I posted it on Facebook: 'Come on in. The water's lovely'!
We were nearing our destination, Port Douglas (206km from Mission Beach, without detours; 3 hours and 16, without stops). I came to Port Douglas the first time during my Nineties trip to Oz. I remember it still feeling a bit villagey and unpretentious. There were great shops and cool cafes, but not as many excellent restaurants and flash resort complexes as there are now. Then, I took an old Chinese junk, along with a few others, to an offshore island to marvel at the coral just off the beach. The boat developed a problem at one point, but it mattered not. We lazed on deck in the hot sunshine while captain 'Blackie' (because he was sunbaked almost to a crisp) dived beneath the boat to fix something or other.

My visit this time was in contrast. Rather than cheap and cheerful accommodation, I stayed in a 'resort and spa' that cost more than $200 a night. It wasn't worth it. I shall say no more about it other than to bemoan the blood-curdling screeches of a bird (possibly a beach stone-curlew?) during the night, which the hotel could do nothing about, and a strange breakfast voucher system that they most certainly should do something about. Port Douglas is still lovely, however. We ate in a couple of great (but pricey) restaurants; shopped; sat in Anzac Park (below) on a perfect afternoon gazing at the Inlet and the coast to the north; and agonized for hours over which reef trip to do.

There are many options for visiting the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. I would rather not think about the 1.6 million people (barrierreefaustralia.com) who go every year from points along the Queensland coast from Bundaberg to Cape Tribulaton. Some boats can carry up to 300 people at a time, although not everyone gets into the water. There were about 70 on our catamaran: some diving; some snorkelling; others observing. The trip to the Agincourt reef was well organised and informative. The last of the three sites we visited was particularly impressive: there were many different kinds of coral and some truly stunning fish. But...

There was a but for me because, although I felt privileged to see such things, I didn't really believe I should be there. With the best will in the world, you can easily catch the coral with a flipper, especially if you're not an experienced snorkeller, and there were many of those on my boat. There were broken bits of coral on the ocean floor (and, later, on Cape Tribulation's beaches), although we were assured they were part of the natural cycle. And there was bleaching of some corals. I wonder, will my children's children be able to put the GBR on their 'must-see' list when they visit Northern Queensland?

After three nights in Port Douglas (the far-less-crowded southern end of Four Mile Beach, above), it was time to head north again, to the far north by my definition. We were now on our more detailed Cairns to Cooktown map, which was very exciting, and all the parts I couldn't reach before, north of the highly significant and emotive Daintree River, were within my grasp. I was thrilled: I would be in Cape Tribulation by the end of the day (82km; 2 hours... but a lot of stops later).

We'd planned to visit Mossman Gorge first, less than 20km up the road, but it was a holiday weekend and the place was mobbed. I feel another comparison coming on... When I was there all those years ago, the only person we came across was a Scotsman who appeared out of nowhere as we revived our feet in the clear tumbling water, and offered us his chips. Curiously, they were still hot, and to this day I wonder how he managed that. He could only have got them in in Mossman, several kilometres down the road. On this occasion, we'd barely left the carpark before deciding to abort the walk, especially after the noisy arrival of a band of young Aussie Blokes on Vespas, all biceps and bravado. Instead we pressed on to Daintree. Before we reached the mystical river crossing, there was the first of the beach delights - Wonga (above).
The only people sharing this with us were natives - a family and a young chap walking and playing rugby with his dog. The dog was gifted, I tell you. Endless palms dropped coconuts on to pale sand. A photography session was inevitable. It was so peaceful and warm and sunny but not too hot. Why move on? I always ask myself that question when I'm on a beach approaching such near-perfection. But there was better to come...

We didn't go into Daintree itself because the call of its rainforest national park was just too great. So we sat and waited for the cable ferry to come and get us, ready to enter a very different world.

Crossing the Daintree River (right) is like crossing a divide, and this Wet Tropics World Heritage Area feels special from the moment you drive off the ferry. Spectacular giant ferns, cycads, fan palms and vines tangle this ancient forest (some say the world's oldest, dating from 135 million years ago) as it encroaches upon a narrow winding road that was only sealed in 2002. It climbs steadily to a viewpoint from where you can admire this lush coast and the mouth of the Daintree. Then it descends and passes through a number of small scattered settlements. There is no mains electricity in this part of the world, only generators, which somehow adds to the magic.

Apart from 'amazing pockets of biodiversity' (Lonely Planet) - which include more than half of Australia's bird, butterfly and fern species - this is a world of even more beautiful beaches, coffee and tea plantations, shady mangrove tidal creeks inhabited by salties and rugged mountains with wonderful names such as Mount Sorrow. We have Captain Cook to thank for this name and that of Cape Tribulation, reflecting the torrid time he had when his ship ran aground on a reef. He first sighted this stretch of coastline in 1770. The first white settlers to the area were loggers drawn to the cedar stands. It's good wood for construction; some was shipped to England.

I will let the pictures do the talking. First up, the view from Alexandra Range lookout point.
Cow Bay
A tea plantation
Cape Tribulation Beach
No photograph or travelog can do justice to Cape Tribulation. I could never wax rhapsodic enough. I have wanted to go there since I first came to Queensland and wasn't allowed north of the Daintree in my hired car because the roads were unsealed. It is sublimely beautiful. It made me feel like Byron Bay does. There is no higher accolade in Jude's book of beaches.

We stayed for four nights. For two days it was cloudy with only occasional sunbursts. The rainforest is so dense - and it came right up to the back wall of our bedroom - it can feel gloomy and oppressive in cloud. So we went croc-spotting at Cooper Creek...
And walked to the end of the road
And measured large fan palms
And bird watched (although there was not as much birdlife as we expected) - a Red-capped Plover gets an itch on Myall Beach
And disposed of an unwelcome visitor in our bedroom (sorry there's no sense of scale, but to give you some idea, we had to use a small wastebin rather than a glass to remove him)
And visited the Bat House, part of the Austrop Research Centre, and got up close and personal with Edward, a nine-month flying fox with only one wing. The centre is run by volunteers and has a lot of information about the threats not only to the sensitive local environment but the global one (austrop.org.au).

We saved the best - and furthest north - till last, however, when we went to Cooktown along the Bloomfield Track, which you can only do in a 4WD. Even in one of those, it gets a bit hairy on the steep inclines, and it was the right decision to choose an organized trip and not try to drive it ourselves. There was a huge battle to establish a way through the forest from Cape Tribulation to the Bloomfield River. The environmentalists may have had to concede defeat in the first round when the track was finally driven through in 1983, but the timber industry (and the Queensland state government) 'lost' the second round five years later when the whole area acquired World Heritage listing. Unfortunately that didn't stop land clearance and private development, and further measures were necessary (Daintree Rescue Programme in 1994) at state and federal government levels to claw back parcels of land for the National Park.
We had an early start because the track is long and slow going. The whole idea of venturing beyond the end of the road was exhilarating, but there was more excitement virtually from the off when we slowed to look at a wild pig trap but spotted a cassowary and its chick.
After about an hour and a half, we reached the Aboriginal settlement of Wujal Wujal. There we met the Walker sisters and were guided by Kathleen to the Bloomfield (Wujal Wujal) Falls.
This is sacred territory and you have to be invited to visit. The Kuku Yalanji have lived in the region for thousands of years and we learned some fascinating things. Kathleen explained that the waterfall never dries up, and that her people can smell the presence of a crocodile. The medicinal properties of plants and animals are many and varied: at the end of our walk she squeezed some green ants between her fingers so their formic acid eased my blocked sinuses. She also described how the community is still restricted by the Australian government: they are not allowed, for instance, to take their young up the mountain to teach them how to hunt or burn (mosaic burning is necessary for forest maintenance).

As you leave the Bloomfield Track and join the Mulligan Highway, at the furthest reach of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, there looms (even on a sunny day) Black Mountain (below), a sinister-looking, weirdly jointed granite hill covered with black lichen and the odd stinging tree. Stories abound of those lost - men trying to climb it as well as animals losing their way - within its treacherous network of boulders. I'm a real sucker for tales of unexplained vanishment and gazed at the eerie place in childlike wonderment.
Windy Cooktown had another feel altogether - isolated yet friendly - and it was warm, almost hot, and sunny. It seemed extremely light and airy after our rather gloomy forest sojourn. It's a very pleasant little town, developed during the Palmer River gold rush, and there are stunning views from the top of Grassy Hill (below). Captain Cook climbed up here to see if he could spot a safe passage out through the reef.
The James Cook Museum, housed in an elaborate Victorian building, a former convent, creates atmosphere with 'sails' and creaking ship's timbers as you read extracts from Cook's diary, which is surprisingly readable. The Endeavour's original anchor and canon are there, too, and the story of their retrieval is fascinating. We went for a little wander through the streets and visited the town's large cemetery, a reflection of Cooktown's varied tally of inhabitants over the years, on our way out of town heading back to Cape Trib.
Leaving Cape Tribulation was as wrenching as our arrival was thrilling. We loaded the car and left in pouring rain. A little way down the road, however, a cassowary with two chicks brightened the early morning considerably and made for the perfect send-off from this very special place.
Again, the Daintree River was our portal back into the real world and the next stage of our journey through the far north of Queensland - towards the interior (Cape Tribulation to Atherton 172km; 3 hours and 10). In tribute to a truly extraordinary part of the world, I leave you with a piece of artwork constructed on the beach by minute, almost transparent sand-coloured crabs.

July 22, 2010

Roadtrip 1: Heading up north

I spent weeks planning this trip: how far we could drive comfortably in a day; where to stop over or stay for longer; must-sees along the way; a balance between beach, rainforest and outback; opportunites to see wildlife... I calculated we would drive 4,000 kilometres; we did 4,500. When my friend's work colleagues knew where he was going, they wondered why he wasn't flying to Cairns. They would, however, think nothing of driving for three hours to meet you for lunch. (I have yet to meet an Australian unduly worried about his or her carbon footprint.)

Saturday 5 June dawned bright and sunny, which furthered our excitement about venturing further up the Bruce Highway than we'd been before. Our destination the first night was Rockhampton, 627 kilometres from Brisbane: according to Google Maps, this was going to take us eight and a half hours. I assume their estimates take into account Australia's baffling, erratic speed restrictions. (I will not at this point digress into rules of the road, driving styles or traffic cops: these deserve a post all to themselves.) We had a system from the outset for covering the distances: alternate two-hours stints at the wheel. This was modified by Day 2 to 90-minute stints, which was certainly all either of us wanted to do in areas where, and at times of day when, there was a hugh risk of roos a-leaping over the nature strip (verge). Your eyes are soon out on stalks as you have to scan to right and left off the road as well as the road itself.

The first surprise on Day 1 was the ending of the motorway incarnation of the Bruce Highway at Noosa. Exactly why had I assumed it would continue as it does imediately north and south of Brisbane when the road clearly changes colour from green to red at the Noosa exit on most maps? But roads suddenly change their name randomly in this part of the world, too... There followed a brief period of rising panic about what we were attempting - 4,000km on ordinary roads - before Bruce became considerably less busy beyond the Sunshine Coast. And almost all drivers - the exceptions being campers and horse boxes - maintained the speed limit (usually 100kph) outside towns. We were pleased to find rest areas - well off the road and with picnic tables and toilets - just where we needed them to change drivers and have coffee (at Gympie) or lunch (Gin Gin).

The ever-changing landscape included spectacular tall grasses along the road: some were pink, the colour of heather; others were light green and feathery; or had smoke-like superfine flowers; or were smooth and golden. It was between Gympie and Gin Gin that the sugarcane began: acre after acre; kilometre after kilometre. In fact it became thousands of kilometres after thousands of kilometres, but we as yet had no idea of the scale of its production. A narrow-gauge railway line ran hither and thither, and the harvest was imminent since the cane was tall, often obscuring our view.

First stop, Rockhampton, or Rocky to its friends, about 40 kilometres inland from the Capricorn Coast on the Fitzroy river, Queensland's largest. Rockhampton is almost right bang on the Tropic of Capricorn, which I was very excited about but not, it would seem Rocky's tourist board. Not a sign to be seen anywhere stating the fact or welcoming us to the tropics. Lots of statues of cows though (above), because the city is Australia's 'beef capital'. The 2008 edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Queensland will tell you that there are 2.5 million cows within a 250-mile radius of Rockhampton.

We liked the feel of Rockhampton and, arriving about 4pm, hurriedly went walkabout. Motel 98 was right by the Fitzroy. Rocky's main streets are as wide as its river, and many fine colonial buildings remain (Customs House, above). As dusk deepened, the chattering of hundreds of Lorikeets grew ever louder as they squabbled for prime roosting positions in the palms along the waterfront. It was an extraordinary noise. Motel 98 is reputed to have one of the best restaurants in town so we stayed in house for dinner and, of course, chose steak, which was full of flavour. The whole meal was excellent, as was our huge cooked breakfast the next morning (to fortify us for another long day on the road); and the obliging maitre d' filled our flask with delicious locally grown coffee for the next leg. It was a gloriously sunny morning and we hit the road just before 9, bound for Airlea Beach, 482 kilometres up the coast and six hours away. What a great feeling.

I had been told there wasn't much between Rocky and Mackay and indeed there isn't. The landscape was drier with different-shaped trees and gradually fewer of them, until it was almost scrubby bush. And then the sugarcane returned in altogether lusher cropland. The Bruce Highway got a lot busier between Sarina, a big sugar town, and Mackay, 'sugar capital' of Oz. We briefly lost Bruce in the middle of Mackay, which is what can happen when 'highways' go slap bang through the middle of cities.

Airlie Beach (above), gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, is backpackers' heaven. There's a very lively main drag, unfortunately complete with McDs, but a pleasant-enough beach. Strangely, it was almost empty but the nearby man-made lagoon and surrounding lawns were packed with sunbakers. Although the stinger season in northern Queensland officially ends in May, we wondered whether it was safe to go into the water. No one will say it's 100 per cent OK, of course, just in case there's a box jellyfish that doesn't know the date. I'll tell you later about its tiny but much deadlier relative, the Irukandji.

Fortunately, we were staying in Shute Harbour, five minutes further on than Airlie and the point of departure for ferries to the Whitsundays. There's little there except the docks and a clutch of spectacularly located houses that command stunning coastal views (above), one of which we were staying in, Coral Point Lodge. So that evening we ordered fish and chips and beer on our balcony as we watched the constellations turn. But not until after another early-evening roosting racket had entertained us enormously: tonight it was the turn of the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, who chose to settle in a tree on an island in the middle of the sound, flashing white in the fading light. Aloof at the top of the same tree sat a huge raptor of some sort on its nest. Unlikely cohabitants I would have thought, but it sat seemingly impassive as the Sulphur-cresteds bedded down. I would come to sorely miss the 'cockatoo clamour of sunset' (The Lap Pool, Robert Drewe) back in Brisbane in the weeks following our holiday.

The state of Queensland covers an enormous area. 'North Queensland', or the 'Northern' region, begins just north of the Whitsundays and extends to roughly halfway between Townsville and Cairns. (North Queensland has even on occasion been claimed to begin at Rockhampton!) The 'Far North' is to the north of North Queensland, that is north of... let's say... Cardwell, which is just south of our next destination, Mission Beach. Are you still with me? The point of this what is north?/what is far north? digression (thanks for the map Wikimedia) is that, as far as I'm concerned, and as far as this trip is concerned, the 'far north' can't possibly start where it's supposed to, according to regional council boundaries. It isn't far enough north, especially given the length of the pointy bit at the top of Queensland. It should start at the very least as far north as the bottom of the pointy bit. So, we're still heading for, but haven't reached, in my book, the far north... OK?

It was Day 3 and we were off on a Mission (506km: 6 hours and 10). But unfortunately, first, we had to go to Townsville. Skirt it, actually, thankfully, in this era of massive construction and roadbuilding in Queensland. I don't like Townsville. Never have; never will. And all because I sat on a hot dusty main road on the edge of Town many years ago with the key to my cheap little hire car broken in the lock. And the previous evening my friend and I had searched for accommodation and somewhere to eat that wouldn't break the bank. And failed. I know people who originally hailed from Townsville. Somebody had to, as Bill Bryson would say. So I'm sorry if what I say offends, but... It's a military town. You can buy the smallest-sized babygros in camo (camouflage) print there. I've read Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island (Chloe Hooper), so I would avoid the police at all costs. (Fortunately we managed to, when a friendly driver coming in the opposite direction flashed warning of the ominous grey van of the speed-gun-toting traffic cops just ahead as we drove into Town. Another nice welcome that would have been, guys). Greg Norman is from Townsville. (In contrast, I offer you this rather splendid Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, above.) Lonely Planet considers Townsville to be Australia's most underrated city, and claims that travellers are becoming aware of the its charm. Not this one.

We gladly moved on to the Cassowary Coast. Queensland has such a long coastline that each stretch, if it isn't an official region, has a tourist tag: Gold; Sunshine; Fraser; Bundaberg & Coral; Capricorn; Whitsunday; Townsville & North; Cassowary; Cairns, Port Douglas & Far North Queensland; and Daintree. As you turn off the Bruce Highway for the Missions, you must cut your speed in case of wandering Southern Cassowaries, smaller relatives of emus and ostriches. There are huge, not very subtle road signs every few hundred metres illustrating that cassowaries can in fact fly, after being hit by cars. These spectacular birds are endangered in Queensland and are very shy (although they can be vicious if they're cross), and we were disappointed not to see one at this stage of our journey. But South Mission and Mission beaches soon distracted us (Dunk Island from South Mission Beach, below).

We stayed at Castaways Resort in a hard-to-beat location a few metres from Mission Beach. They'd warned us renovation was still in progress, but the work was transforming this place into such a lovely boutique hotel that we almost didn't mind sharing it with workmen. The restaurant and bar area, now called a beach club (there are lap and infinity pools), were virtually complete: lots of pale wood; deep, beautifully upholstered banquettes; great lighting; and funky, unobtrusive music. Dinner in the restaurant was a joy. We went out to eat on the town's main drag, Porter Promenade, the second evening of our stay, but I wish we'd stayed home. Castaways' restaurant eventually took my Best Meal of the Holiday Award, for it's clear, almost colourless tomato soup with its delicate yet delicious flavour. Portion sizes were a bit nouvelle, but, hey, you can't have everything. Our meal was followed by a walk on the beach so we almost did.

Mission Beach is not hip like Palm Cove, nor hippie like Byron, nor backpacky like Airlie, nor resorty like Port Douglas. It's relaxed and friendly; uncrowded and unhurried. The man in the deli made us interesting sandwiches for our picnic on Dunk Island; gave us his leftover tickets for the Daintree River ferry; recommended an off-highway route as we headed north; forecast the weather (accurately) for two days; and explained that the little dog sitting patiently outside on the pavement was the mayor's dog who'd come for his daily tupperware full of yesterday's sliced meats. He (the deli-man) resembled Rolf Harris; his daughter, Kelly Osborne.

On Day 4, having watched the sunrise from the beach and eaten a hearty breakfast (which was becoming a habit), we stepped out of our room and on to the beach to be picked up by the Sealegs amphibious water taxi (above) that was going to take us to Dunk Island (Brammo Bay, below). We may have had a 'dry-feet pick-up', but the 20-minute wave-cutting, white-knuckle ride across the channel was, how shall I put it, refreshing, if you weren't sitting in the right place. Being on Dunk was a bit like having our own palm-fringed island. We didn't go anywhere near the resort, but plonked ourselves on Muggy Muggy beach beyond the rocky headland. My friend had by now overcome any lingering doubts about tardy stingers and went snorkelling for an hour or so, leaving me on the beach with my book. It was warm. It was bliss after three days in the car. This is what I'd come to the beaches of Northern Queensland for. Bit of beachcombing. Birdwatching. Where-shall-we-go-for-dinner debate. Our water taxi collected us at 3, which meant I had half an hour in the lap pool before tea.

I had my first Lamington in Mission Beach. If you're Australian and reading this, you may wonder why it has taken me 15 years and five visits to these shores: if you know me and my great love of a few select varieties of chocolate cake among its many guises, you will appreciate my reticence when I tell you that a Lamington is a (non-chocolate) sponge-cake oblong dipped in chocolate and coconut. According to the company that makes them, they are an Australian icon that ranks up there with Vegemite. Mine was far from unpleasant: it was very moist. But compared with a brownie from the deli on Oxford in Bulimba, it was nowhere, mate.

Below: Eastern Reef Egret on Muggy Muggy Beach, Dunk Island

On Day 5 we woke early and went for a run along the beach. We hail from lovely running country amidst the North Downs of Surrey; at home in Brisbane, we take the little bathboat ferry across from Bulimba to Teneriffe before running along the north shore of the Brisbane River as far as the Story Bridge; but running on the firm pale sand south along Mission Beach as the sun rose took some beating I have to tell you.

After yet another great holiday breakfast, we hit the road just after 9, calling in for more of deli-man's delights for the journey. We then took his suggested route to Innisfail, avoiding Bruce, and enjoying rural roads and an attractive, fertile landscape with some interesting crops - lots of bananas, a teak plantation and, inevitably, more sugarcane. Suddenly, round a corner, appeared the enormous sugar mill of South Johnstone. We had, in fact, been driving along part of the old Bruce Highway from Silkwood to Innisfail, the Canecutter Way. With the rainforested slopes of the Wooroonooran National Park firmly in our sights to the north, we couldn't help but wonder just how much virgin rainforest was sacrificed to arable land seekers in late-19th century Queensland.

Not much further on, we turned west on to the Palmerston Highway for a brief rainforest detour...

Below: Lamingtons

July 16, 2010

Queensland – Sunshine State?

On my first visit to Australia, in the Nineties, I remember flying from Cairns to Sydney in December. There were increasing amounts of cloud as we headed south and there were large puddles alongside the runway as we landed. Isn't this the Australian summer, I thought, but kept it to myself. In February 2006, my friend and I flew to Perth. A couple of days later in Bunbury, as we struggled into wetsuits in 33 degrees to go play with dolphins out in the bay, the locals looked relieved. 'First day of summer we've had,' they explained. (By February?) 'Been lots of rain.' After a fleeting appearance, the dolphins scarpered. 'Too choppy in the bay', our guide apologised. 'Will have disturbed their food.' As if to emphasise the point, lightning forked along the horizon.

Of all the iconic images and preconceived ideas about Australia, and Queensland in particular, predictable hot sunny days are probably the most enduring. Planning to invite a bunch of friends round for a barbecue in a couple of months on a special occasion? Go right ahead. Want to book a trip to the outer reef (and, of necessity, hang about in a damp stinger suit between snorkelling forays)? No dramas. Fancy a day at the beach this weekend? Beaut.

It is winter now. As I write this, I am sitting in a vest, three-quarter-sleeved top, long cashmere cardigan with fingerless-glove-bits at the end of the armies, scarf, jeans, socks and boots. No one believes me at home. When I Skype, they comment on how many clothes I am wearing or ask what the whirring is in the background. It's a fan heater. It's a lovely sunny day outside. About 20 degrees. Scarcely a cloud. But sitting at my computer in my otherwise lovely dining room, it's damned parky. The sun is lower in the sky these days and only makes it through my predominantly east-facing windows first thing. Houses here are built for hot weather, not cold, so the windows are not double glazed. Fortunately, our air conditioning system is also a heating system, and we have used it. But I only brought summer-weight duvets with me. Mistake. I packed boots and sweaters thinking I would never get them out of the their boxes. Wrong.

It isn't serious cold, of course, close to the coast in southeast Queensland. But in the interior on our recent roadtrip, we felt a cold and almost frosty 3 degrees one morning in Clermont on the Gregory Highway. That was a serious shock. There was quite thick fog, too, which further increased the risk of hitting roos as we got back on the road at 7am, a long driving day ahead of us. As the sun burned through the mist, strange remnants hung above the fields. But I digress...

As we drove from Brisbane airport into the city on January 2nd, everywhere looked wonderfully lush. We were told that there had been a lot of rain, much to everyone's relief, as it followed years of drought and water restrictions. So, this very green city looked very green. Its streets and parks are full of trees. The person Brisbanites have to thank for this is Harry Oakman, the city's first Director of Parks and Gardens (from 1946 until 1963). He believed there should be colour around every corner throughout the year. I can't wait for the spring flowers. When we arrived, the ornamental poincianas were at their best, resembling scarlet umbrellas throughout the city. Well, it was the Wet. Everyone will tell you there are two seasons here, the Wet (summer) and the Dry (winter). I couldn't possibly draw any conclusions about that yet, but I log weather conditions in my diary, and from January 1st 2011 onwards I'll compare notes with this year's entries. (And if that sounds anoraky, I make no apology. I am English, and I was born to weather-watch. I am my father's daughter.)

On our second day, as we viewed Brisbane from aboard a CityCat, dark clouds amassed and rain fell out of the sky. Suddenly we couldn't even see the riverbank and large drops bounced off the river as they would off a pavement. Water poured through windows and doors into the cabin, and there was thunder and lightning like I imagine there'd be at world's end. Nobody flinched. I concentrated with all my being and wherewithal on not squealing involuntarily. That remains the only serious storm we've had. In six months. There's been rain. For 36 hours without stopping in March. I peered grimly out of our bedroom window (below), while my friend had to find a different route to his office from where he usually parks (below but one).

But what had become of the frequent storms late in the afternoons that I'd heard so much about before I came, and from a reliable source - someone born and bred in Brisbane. The beautiful pre-sunset colours in the west, between the storm clouds and the horizon? A blind man who came to my house a few months ago (to mend one of the blinds) confirmed that this was a feature of the weather when he was young, too. I have no idea whether what we have experienced so far in Brisbane is normal or not. Does anywhere have 'normal' weather in fact or any more? My friend believes that people have terribly distorted memories when it comes to weather reporting. They remember it being hotter or wetter or sunnier when they were little, when in fact only a couple of years ago it was the hottest or the wettest or the sunniest year on record. (Incidentally, 2009 was Australian's second hottest on record.)

The greatest weather surprise for us so far, however,
is just how many cloudy days there are (Sunday afternoon at the Boondall Wetlands Reserve, right). Yes, there's lots of sunshine, but there's also lots of cloud. On some days, it looks suspiciously like Tupperware, and hangs around for hours, formless and dull, just like back home. A day can dawn full of gloriously sunny promise that suddenly disappears in a few blinks of an eye as thick cloud bubbles up out of nowhere or builds, black and ominous, from the horizon. Good job the barbie wasn't planned for those days, then? Sometimes the clouds are stunning. We witnessed the most spectacular mackerel sky a couple of weeks ago. It lasted for most of the day, covered most of the sky, and resulted in a stunningly coloured rippled sunset. And at other times clouds take unfamiliar shapes - they might have strange bumps on their undersides, rather like underdeveloped mammatus.

Clouds are often visibly layered, I think because the weather can change very quickly here. Rarely should you despair that rain has set in for the day: you could be on the beach by this arvo. You might see whimsical wispy high strands of cirrus behind neat little cotton-wool balls of cumulus bobbing along below them, but then nearby there'll be some bully-boy rain clouds trying to muscle in. Larger cumulonimbus may look grey and lightless in their threatening but, if you look carefully, you'll see that they are, in fact, the most beautiful deep violet colour.

Barely visible in this photograph (looking from Cleveland Point to North Stradbroke Island), was an almost vertical rainbow's end diving into the sea just left of centre on the horizon. It was fleeting, as storm clouds piled in the east producing rain already over the island and the sun set back over the city in the west. The spectacle had almost faded by the time I'd got my camera out of the car. I have learned slowly to carry my camera with me at all times, even when just popping to the shops. I do that most days in the late afternoon and have missed many a literally golden opportunity to snap a beautiful pre-sunset sky. Sunsets at this latitude are relatively short-lived. And early: 5.30pm in the winter and only an hour later in the summer.

There is no daylight saving in Queensland. DST is one of three topics of conversation I was told on my second day here never to engage in with a native of this state, unless I have half a day to spare. (The other two subjects are the Murray-Darling Basin and indigenous Australians.) Since I've been here I have formed my own opinions about DST. Living in the southeast, I tend to have more in common with those people who have pretensions, so the argument goes, to sharing the same time zone as the other eastern state capitals, Sydney and Melbourne, rather than the narrow-minded (is the implication) farming and mining communities of the far north and west. This is, however, a much more complicated issue than at first appears, and the temperate vs tropics aspect of the argument, coupled with the vast size of this state, make it a fascinating subject than I cannot elaborate upon in this post. But I will return to it.

Half the cars registered in this state say 'Queensland - Sunshine State' below the number on the registration plate. The other half say 'Queensland - The Smart State' (cerebrally, not sartorially). Victorian number plates we saw recently on our travels in northern Queensland said 'Victoria - The Place To Be'. Is there a Trade Descriptions Act here?