Mostly Queensland Dec 6-31
From Sydney we headed north-west to Coonabarabran, the edge of the outback. It is over 40 degrees by afternoon, so Steve is happy at last.
Fortunately, the caravan park has a pool and I made a beeline for that but by evening the temperature had cooled significantly. That's the outback – stinking hot during the day, but refreshingly cool at night.
On arrival we’d noticed big grey-brown bugs on the trees next to the campervan. There were quite a few so I was wondering if this was such a great place to camp. Then we noticed that they were dead and totally dehydrated. What’s more, their backs were split open, leaving an empty shell of a carcass.
Eventually we established that these are the carcasses of cicadas. At a stage in their life cycle they burst out of their old bodies, leaving them behind. Driving through forested areas in the mountains we’d certainly heard the high-pitched hum they make when mating. At full throttle they can give you quite a headache and the first time we heard it Steve thought something was amiss with the van’s motor.
Warrumbungle National Park
Awoke this morning to so many birds, sounding for all the world like Africa. The kookaburra birds make a loud chattering noise like quarrelling monkeys.
While we were having breakfast we noticed that a whole lot of those cicada carcasses had glommed onto our rubber tires ...same as on the trees, theirs backs broken open and their “innards” long gone. Looked like they were trying to break into the van during the night, but I think they were just attracted to the rubber tires.
Went into town and had a great talk with the ladies at the Visitors Centres. They didn’t know anything about the cicadas but they do have the skeletal remains of an ancient dinosaur-type creature in their little museum. He is called a Diprotodon opatum and was the largest marsupial ever to live. Looked a lot like a huge rhinoceros, but without the horn. The skeleton was found on a farm near to Coonabarabran.
They also introduced us to “Christmas Beetles” a beautiful, phosphorescent green beetle that apparently only comes out at Christmas.
Carried on towards Warrumbungle National Park. First stop was the Siding Spring Conservatory. This is located 27 km west of Coonabarabran and is a joint venture between Australia and Britain. Astronomers decided, back in the early 70s, to partner on a big telescope for observing the southern sky. You can’t see through the telescope but you can see the telescope itself from a viewing gallery. There are now several other telescopes there as well and astronomers from all over use the data recorded there to examine the galaxies above us. There is an interpretive centre and lots of information about astronomy.
It was lovely and cool up there, perfect for our picnic lunch.
At the campground in the park there are lots of kangaroos, emus, rabbits and kookaburras hanging around our campsite. Steve went for a three-hour hike. Don’t know how he did it as it is stinking hot – over 40 degrees again. But there are tons of walking tracks here and he enjoyed it.
Cooked cheese tortellini in sour cream and onion sauce tonight. Not exactly low-cal but sure tasted good. As I write this it is 8 pm and still very hot, but it has been a good day. Overhead, the sky is heavy with rain clouds, but it only spits rain for about 20 minutes then clears for a beautiful sunset.
Now dark, I head off down the track to the showers which I discover are motion activated. Unfortunately, you need light to detect motion and the shower block is now totally dark. I despair of getting my shower until I remember the small flashlight in my bag. Presto ...hold that in front of the sensor and wave my hand at the same time and I have water.
The sun is now fully down and we are confined to the van because of bugs, the most aggressive insects I’ve ever seen. The evening began with tiny biting sand flies. These little buggers seem to think insect repellent is an appetizer sauce because they just massed on our legs come dusk.
But it got worse. When I came inside the van and turned on the light, a larger winged insect started attacking the fly screens on the windows. Literally hundreds of them were desperate to reach the light inside the van. As fast as I killed them, they reappeared. It took me a while to fathom out what was happening, but when I looked closer at the fly screens for holes, I noticed that the bugs were simply wiggling and worming themselves against the fly screens with such desperation that eventually they worked themselves through. Bloody hell. Now I had to close all the windows. We had the fan going full bore for air circulation, but it was a tad over the top claustrophobia wise.
The only way to stop the insanity was to turn the lights off and go to bed. But even so, some of them continued to worm their way into the van. All night we slapped our arms and chests ...picking small buggy bumps off our bodies. In the morning I looked at the bed sheet ...good thing it is dark blue so I couldn’t REALLY see, but there were dozens of bug carcasses in the sheets.
The dead bugs notwithstanding, it was an enchanting morning, eating breakfast while we watched the kangaroos eating their own breakfast and interacting with each other. Most had joeys in their pouches. If you held out your hand they would come to you, obviously accustomed to being fed by humans. But we obeyed all the signs that says this makes them sick and didn’t feed them.
We also saw a lot of interesting birds. There were a pair of kookaburras who hung around in the tree beside our van. They are a big bird and make one heck of a racket. We’ve never been that close to them in the wild before. There was a very big owl in a nearby tree as well as blue and red parrots, butcher birds, mynah birds, and crows, who make very strange sounds that sound like lambs baaing and babies crying.
During the night and early morning we also heard jungle-like sounds that I believe were quarrelling koalas. Steve thinks it was the kookaburras ...but I think koalas.
Our tires were full of cicada bodies again this morning. This is so Alfred Hitchcock like weird, empty shell casings of bodies clinging to the tires, as if they were trying to get at us in the van. After the experience of those winged bugs actually worming through the fly screens I’m not so sure the cicadas weren’t trying to get in.
So today we set off through the rest of the park. It’s a very nice drive, with big outcroppings of rock looming in the distance, lovely meadows. Apparently this area was all agricultural at one time with most of the land cleared. Now they have taken it up as a park and have the school kids coming in to plant little trees. There are signs indicating that this or that stand of trees has been planted by the school children. They are doing this to reclaim the natural environment.
This all sounds very nice, but one has to wonder if the pioneers are tossing in their graves. In order to hold onto their “selections” of land, early settlers had to clear a certain number of hectares each year. If they didn’t clear the land they lost it.
The clearing was accomplilshed by sheer grunt labour, men and women digging and hauling and burning stumps. Hot, dirty, back-breaking work under foul conditions.
So I have to wonder if all this business of sending school kids out to plant saplings in an effort to undo the work of the pioneers doesn’t dishonour the extraordinary effort of those early pioneers. Doesn’t Australia have enough trees elsewhere? Couldn’t the paddocks remain just that for now? Left to itself, the forest would reclaim the meadows soon enough.
We circled around under the park and back to Coonabarabran, then headed up to Narribi. These towns all have such a 1950s feel to them with each storefront being unique and retro looking. Not in a contrived way ...retro has not arrived at this end of the world. These shops are located in buildings that were actually built anywhere from the 1800s forward. Not too much has changed – hand painted signs and all.
From Narribi we carried on to Moree then turned east to Warialda for night. This caravan park is run by the shire and is cheap - $9.60 for the night, including power and a spotlessly clean ablution block.
Steve loves a bargain, so he’s happy as a clam here. It has been very hot all day but is cooling nicely as I write this. Will be a nice night, although we are right on the main highway and huge trucks are rolling through, jake-breaking as they slow down ...wonder if they will run all night. We had a laugh about that. There is NO perfect place to spend the night, except, perhaps, home.
The laundry is dirt cheap here too ....$2 to wash, $1 to dry. We usually pay $3 to wash and about $6 if we are in a hurry and need the dryers. So did a big laundry and got rid of all the bug bodies in the bedding.
The van, however, stinks. About a week ago I spilled milk on our area carpet. After several fruitless attempts to clean it, we threw it out but the smell persists.
So we pulled out all the shells from the storage under the bed ...and discovered the culprit. One bag must have had something live in it because it was black with slime and stank ...pretty much like you would imagine rotting sea slugs to smell. Ugh. The smell had been somewhat contained by the ziploc bag and by being in a storage compartment with a plywood lid ...but there was the culprit.
While we had all the shells out we spent an hour sorting through them and managed to eliminate about 5 kg of them! Put them in a bag in the laundry room and invited people to help themselves. Since this is an inland town, hopefully someone will find them interesting enough to take home and put to good effect in craftwork or something.
Finally, the smell in the van is gone.
to Glen Innes
Left Warialda this morning and headed for Inverell along the Gwydir Highway. Lovely road through open rolling fields of grasslands, dark-leafed trees providing contrast. At Inverell we stopped to enjoy a cappuccino, sitting on the sidewalk watching the world go by. Inverell looks like a really nice mid-sized town. Lots of shops in the usual main-street heritage buildings, plenty of green spaces, interesting, well-kept little homes. A real sense of bustle to the place.
From Inverell we carried on to Glen Innes. This seems to be the centre of Celtic culture with the big whoop in town being the “Australian Standing Stones”. This project began as a Bicentenary Project (1988) by a group of citizens of Celtic heritage who decided to erect a national monument to honour all the Celtic people who helped pioneer Australia.
So they “planted” 40 large granite stones in a circle in a park. The stones stand 3.7 metres tall out of the ground and look quite interesting – kind of a small scale Stonehenge. They have Celtic festivals here.
We also enjoyed walking around the town, looking at the usual heritage buildings. The streetscapes are so alive with people bustling about their business. There are photo shops and news agencies, ladies wear shops and shoe stores, stationers and chemists, gift shops and alternative healing centres.
All the while, Christmas carols are being played through the main streets, I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red Nosed Snowman. As it happens, they DO get snow in Glen Innes ...a clerk pulled some postcards to prove it to me! It gets quite cool up here, but in their winter, which is in July. The world is certainly turned upside down here.
We are parked in a lovely caravan park here. Our site is very private, tucked, in amongst the trees and stones. We could not ask for a nicer setting. We went to a concert tonight, the result of seeing a poster while eating lunch – Afro-Gypsy-Jazz. Sounded too good not to stay in town for and the tickets were only $15.
They were great – a group called Arabesque and consisting of a drummer from Detroit, a Bulgarian fiddler, with Australians on bass and guitar. The fiddler was a whirling dervish – stomping, striding, leaping all over the stage. All the while, the bow on the fiddle never stopped ...wild and passionate, soft and tender, or whaling with mournfulness.
I’ve never heard music quite like this before ...they termed it gypsy-tango-jazz. It was all that and more as they played compositions from Turkey, Spain, Brazil, France ...and so much more.
to Girraween National Park
First stop today was Tenterfield for lunch and to look for a book exchange. We found it at the Tenterfield 2nd Hand Shop. While I was going through the books looking for something new to read, I heard a woman on the other side of the wall cracking jokes, one after another ....all much too naughty to be repeated here. Each punchline was met with gales of laughter from several other women. When they noticed me, giggling by the bookshelves there was instant connection.
First, an invitation to join the sausage sizzle lunch going on in the back room, insistence that I at least try their shortbread, and ultimately, an invitation to join the laughter retreat for women out on one of their rural properties. We discussed it further and decided that it should also be a nude weekend ...because when women dispense with modesty they also dispense with the bullshit.
Alas ....I had a husband sitting out in the van wondering what had become of me so it was time for me to move on. I exchanged my four books for four new ones plus 20 cents per book. Quite the deal. He’d been to the Visitors Centre and decided we should go up to Girraween National Park for the night. Suits me.
Now I sit here, working on my website while the kangaroos graze around me ...just inches from my feet. This is so awesome.
to Yarraman and Bunya National Park
We woke up really early this morning so Steve could climb The Pyramids. I make coffee and enjoy catching up on my journaling with the kangaroos all around me ...it’s an enchanting morning ...cool but warm, sun coming up over the horizon. Heaven.
Once on the road again, the first stop was Stanthorpe where we came on a Sunday Market. Lots of really talented craftsmanship here. Fell in love with a tall wooden vase ...only $65 but it must have weighed 20 kg. If we were on the final leg of this trip I would have dragged it onto the plane but we still have a flight to NZ and two months travel ahead of us so it was a no go. Did buy a knitted duck for my niece and a knitted clown for my grandchildren. What grandchildren, you say? Well, there will be one, someday and I will be ready. Just fell in love with this knitted clown and at $20 the price was so reasonable I could not leave him sitting there. His name is Ozzie.
In Crows Nest National Park we picnic but it’s less than enjoyable because the cicadas were carrying on, a totally head-splitting racket. I even put in the ear plugs I use when Steve is on a snoring binge. Its’ also extremely hot and dry here. All around unpleasant. We ate lunch and moved on.
We had been planning on camping in the Bunya Mountains National Park but by now it was getting very late and the road in would be partially gravel, so chose, instead to overshoot the turnoff and go into Yarraman for night.
The caravan park here is full of seniors in semi-permanent residency. The caravans are small and mobile looking but they have strings of Christmas lights around them and everyone seems to know everyone. They’ve been sitting down at the campers kitchen drinking and making dinner all evening. Now they are singing ... all clearly inebriated, laughing uproariously and carrying on. Shameful to be having that much fun at their age.
Our campsite backs onto a farmer’s field with sheep. One big fella keeps coming up to the fence and baaing ...like he has bronchial smoker’s baa! The locals all come by to scratch his neck – he seems to like it. Lots of other sheep in the same field and lots of little lambs. It’s a pretty setting.
The proprietor here told us we should not have missed Bunya Mountains so we’ll backtrack in the morning.
We were so glad we did ...the drive was worth it. Just extraordinary road through mountains with enormous pine trees. These are a very different kind of pine, huge and stately. The proprietor of the caravan park had showed me a pine cone that was the biggest I’ve ever seen. The parks brochure says the pine cones can weigh up to 10 kg each but we didn’t find any like that.
We did stop and go for a walk to Paradise Falls ...barely a trickle, but a very nice walk nonetheless.
Stopped and had a look at the campsites there. Very basic but they had unique showers. A big canvas bag on a pulley. You fill it up with water, hoist it up, then shower, solar shower style. Looks like it would be very refreshing on hot days.
Mon Repos Conservation Area
We’ve headed back to the coast again, bypassing Bundaberg and are camping at Elliot Heads so that we can see the loggerhead turtles nesting at Mon Repos.
We got there early and sat out in the parking lot making, then eating, our dinner. A fellow was quite concerned about that because he told us that people were already lining up (the centre opened at 7pm) and we would be left behind if we didn’t get in line. But we’d already bought our ticket during the day and were feeling too mellow to go rushing out to stand in line.
When they finally opened the office, people were assigned to groups according to when they had bought their tickets earlier that day. So standing in line that night would have made no difference whatsoever. In fact, we were in the second group to go out while the line-stander was in the fifth group!
If the turtles don’t show up right away they show you slides and videos until it is your group’s turn to go out in the sand dunes and see the turtles. There is no guarantee that you will see a turtle, but the area had been very busy lately, with 20-30 turtles each night.
Shortly after 7:00 our group was called to go out so about 50 of us tromped down the beach together. Our turtle was a lonnnnngggg way down the beach but we came to her finally, up in the dunes clearing out her nest with her flippers.
We all gathered around. The guide stuck a light at her rear end. Then he and a couple of the researchers got busy measuring her. To do this they had to scrape the barnacles off her ...which seemed to me to be a very aggressive way to be treating a mother turtle in the midst of nesting. But they scraped and then he got the pliers out to wrench off the barnacles so they could get an accurate measurement.
So all fifty people were crowded around ...hard to see anything. Also a difficult location up there in the dunes because you had to crawl up in this very soft sand. But I did get a look for a few moments ...not too much to see as she covers the hole with her shell. Some people who were right on top of her were able to see the eggs plop in.
The researchers decided that the nest was too close to the water ...a very high tide could flood the nest so they decided to dig another nest a little further in ...one of the researchers got busy doing this while the mother turtle was lying her eggs in the original hole. After she left they moved the eggs, 101 of them, into the new nest they’d made.
I got tired balancing on the edge of the dune so the researcher suggested I go sit on the edge of the dune and wait. We all had to leave the beach as a group and we couldn’t leave until the turtle had returned to the ocean. So I was just settling in on a grassy knoll waiting when another turtle was spotted coming in and was headed straight for me! It was very cool watching her come closer and closer and closer. I had my video camera with infra red and could see her very clearly. She seemed to know that all the people were there because she kept pausing and craning her neck in our direction ...a “sniffing the air” kind of posture. She would continue for a few feet, then sniff the air again.
She came right up beside me and started clearing her nest, spraying sand all over me with her huge flippers. Then she changed her mind and moved closer towards the ocean and started working there. About then the guide came and started feeling around her, bothering her, from what I could see. She stopped digging ...then headed back to the ocean. “Enough of that,” she seemed to be saying.
But in the distance another one was coming in. This time a bunch of people ran down and surrounded the turtle coming in. That turtle turned around and headed back to the ocean too.
The whole thing seemed very disorganized with far too many people allowed around the turtle. The researchers struck me as being way too intrusive with the turtle. In Costa Rica they only allow 18 people and you cannot get near the turtle until she goes into her egg-laying trance. The guide said the same thing here ....stay away from the turtle till she goes into her trance ...but in the meantime he and the other researchers are all over her, trying to scrape barnacles off etc. Didn’t seem right.
Town of 1770 and Lady Musgrave Island
During the night there was a horrendous tropical storm with massive winds, frightening lightning strikes and torrential rains. Some of the strikes were directly overhead, one knocked Steve pretty much off his feet and blew him into the van. Pretty exciting at first, but once the worst of the lightning and thunder moved on we enjoyed sitting in the open doorway of the van and watching the show. The rain was sheeting against the van from the other side, so it was possible to sit there with the door open on the lee side.
But it was not a good night for tents and several parties had to spend the night in their cars as the wind and wet destroyed their tents. In the morning, most of the tent people were packing up and heading for home as everything was too wet to continue camping. We headed for the Town of 1770, from where we have tickets to cruise out to Lady Musgrave Island and spend the day snorkelling.
The caravan park at 1770 is right on the water, the campers cheek-by-jowl with tent cities! People set up the most amazingly complex encampments with multiple tents and trailers and tarps. It’s hard to see, sometimes where one camp begins and another ends.
The beach is a mudflat. The camp is actually set where the river open onto the ocean, so that explains it. People come here with their boats to fish, the Australian obsession.
It was hot and hard to fall sleep ....then during the night the torrential rains returned, flooding everything. We had to close up all our windows because the wind was pushing the rain through the screens. Not a nice thing to do when it is so hot and sticky and the sand flies have you itching compulsively. I would die without my fan going full blast.
Come morning we were wondering how the day was going to develop, rains sheeting down around us. But a few minutes before we had to set out for the marina, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Just like that.
People here really seem to be happy in their jobs. While we were waiting for the boat to be ready the manager of the bait shop came out with some frozen fish and encouraged us all to follow him onto the dock. Every morning he feeds a giant groper off the dock and sure enough, this groper, big as a VW Bug lurches out of the water for the fish.
He was a nice man. When he saw me scratching the sand fly bites he told me to stop into the pharmacy later and pick up some Vicks Vaporub. “Rub a thin layer of that into the bite area and it will stop the itch,” he advised. He was right.
We set off on a high speed vessel, the MV Discover Reef. It holds 50 people but we were only 20 so it was a nice sized group to spend snorkelling with. Jada, a woman from Vancouver who took her training with BC Ferries was the skipper - a beautiful young woman who never stopped smiling.
Mandy helped out and did most of the commentary on the fish and coral we were seeing. Tim was the boat master or something ....basically got us tied up and untied and drove the semi-submersible. He had his two kids along to work ...lovely, well-behaved children who swam like fishes.
It was nearly two hours out to Lady Musgrave Island. Dozed and relaxed in very comfy seats.
As soon as we got out there they served tea ...and coffee and fruitcake. Then we were taken over to the island for a nature walk. Saw lots of black noddy terns nesting in the casuarina and pisonia trees there. They all seemed to have chicks. A few of the chicks had fallen out of their nests and were on the ground. Steve saw a seagull swoop one up and swallow it in one gulp.
On the beaches there was evidence of many turtle nests and in one case evidence of a robbed nest, with the remnants of eggs that had been scooped out littering the nest site.
Back to the pontoon ...Lady Musgrave Cruises operates from a floating pontoon. It has shade and an underwater viewing observatory. You swim and snorkel off the platforms here – easy to get on and off of.
We were taken over to the island and returned to the pontoon on a glass bottom boat. This was really good ...saw lots of incredible coral. This is the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef and I have to say it was a lot more impressive today than what I saw at the north end near Cairns a few years ago.
Back to the pontoon for an excellent lunch of salads, fruit, chicken, ham and prawns. Then off in the semi-submersible to see more coral and fish. They feed the fish from the top so there is lots to see and the coral was really incredible.
Afternoon was devoted to snorkelling and swimming. This was very enjoyable. Lady Musgrave Island is a coral cay with a coral fringed lagoon surrounding it. The waters are calm and the snorkelling was very pleasant.
Back at the pontoon we had fresh water showers, then a lie in the sun to dry off. A final trip on the semi-submersible for another look at coral in a different section of the lagoon and it was time to return. A great day and highly recommended as suitable for any level of swimming/snorkelling ability as the waters are calm and they have floatation vests for anyone who needs them.
People like Steve who are confident and skilled went further out and spent longer in the water. At the other extreme was a family with a disabled child who also had a wonderful day with their son in a floatation vest and taking full advantage of the glass-bottomed boat and semi-submersible trips.
Slept all the way home ...as did most everyone.
Tin Can Bay
The next morning we headed south to Tin Can Bay. This was a good day with lots of interesting stops at local beaches and markets. Made a nostalgic stop in to Hervey Bay for ice cream. This is where we stayed and also caught the ferry to Fraser Island on our last trip. That was an experience that would make a book all on its own.
In Tin Can Bay we stopped at the caravan park on the outskirts of town ...GREAT pool. Just the right size and it had a wonderful sloping entry into the water. It had been dreadfully hot all day and I was just melting into a puddle ...until I had that swim and then I was a new woman.
We saw a Carol Sing / Sausage Sizzle advertised on big signs all over town so we went ...the Salvation Army was serving up the sausages and pop. $2 and $1. Very good. One of the local churches was setting up their equipment to have a Christmas presentation.
But the sky was threatening ....and then the thunder started rolling. So they announced that they’d called Gympie, a town to the west, where the storm was coming from and that Gympie had said it was only a ten minute shower. The evening’s entertainment would continue post rain shower. So everyone ran for cover.
It was a wonderfully dramatic storm – big black clouds billowing into a dirty mustard colour, churning and boiling overhead, moving so fast. Never seen anything like that before. Lightning filled the sky, thunder roared and rolled, and rain came down in torrents for about ten minutes.
The storm moved on to the east ...then fifteen minutes later it seemed to be coming back again ...but this time, while it was definitely moving west again, it was doing so to the south of us ...and stayed stuck there. All through the evening, lightning sheeted across the sky, providing a light show I will never forget. We sat there for two hours ...and it never moved on. Just like a huge screen in behind the stage .... lightning sheeting and forking, but now at least a hundred km to the south of us. Just magnificent.
The show went on, with carol singing and preaching and a children’s entertainer who was a Steve Irwin impersonator ...with big blow-up crocodiles. Very amusing.
In the morning we went down to the docks at Tin Can Bay and saw where the dolphin comes in to feed every morning about 7:30. We were not there early enough for that but it was interesting to see all the people sitting around a big blow-up Santa enjoying their Sunday – morning coffees.
Christmas is celebrated here ...but more like an afterthought, than as a main event like it is at home. It is almost like people seem to say, “Christmas, right ...guess we had better do something.” So they throw up some plastic ornaments, some metallic garland ...all very haphazardly ...and that is it. The enthusiasm is just not there.
Just as well. If it were too much like Christmas here I am sure I would dissolve into a puddle of emotionality as I am missing my sons and the special time that Christmas has always been for us as a family. As it is, it’s hard to connect to those emotions when the temperature is soaring and one’s heart’s desire is to find a cool pool to jump into.
Tomorrow morning we meet up with our friend Lynne to begin our Christmas “holiday”. First stop is some time on Noosa’s north shore to meet some of her friends and chill out at their place. Then down to check out progress on Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo. From there we’ll continue on to Brisbane and practice jumping in and out of her pool. Christmas week will see us with other travelling friends, Niels and Jette (we met in Africa), first enjoying a Danish Christmas with their family, then heading down the Gold Coast to enjoy their home there.
New Years will see us back in Brisbane ...then flying off to New Zealand on January 2nd.