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

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