Friday, July 30, 2010

Staying Dry in the Wet Tropics

If you're not on holidays, you'll probably have a hard time feeling sorry for me as I whine about mine.  After all, the worst day on holidays is still better than the best day at work, right?  RIGHT??

I once was a believer, but now I'm not so sure...

You don't visit the tropics in winter ie the DRY season expecting to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) due to lack of sunshine (LOSS), do you?  Of course not!  But after 3+ weeks of cloud, drizzle, rain, fog, humidity, mist and damp my Vitamin D levels were so depleted, I've probably suffered irreparable skin damage by being in the sun as much as possible!!  How do Australians reconcile the mutually exclusive concerns of preventing skin cancer (by staying out of the sun) and preventing Vitamin D deficiency (by staying in the sun), anyway?  But I digress ...

Our sunless odyssey began before we hit the rain and drizzle when we reached Cardwell - gateway to the fabulous Hinchinbrook Island.  Happily, there's a kind of double rain shadow where the island to the east and the mountain range to the west stop most of the rain from reaching Cardwell.  BUT ... nothing stops the cloud - it persisted for all of the three days we spent there.

After driving through pouring rain at Innisfail and Tully (home of the Golden Gumboot), then sweeping mist and drizzle as we climbed onto the Atherton Tablelands.  I'm not sure if it was drizzly mist or misty drizzle we experienced on and off for the next 9 days, but I'm sure the overall effect is the same. 

So it seemed like a smart move to head north to Cooktown, where during the dry season, we had on good authority, it NEVER RAINS!  Well ... at least the vegetation was really green!  And there was no dust on the road ...  But Cooktown will always hold the dubious privilege of being the first place we've ever deferred a planned departure date due to the weather, extending our stay to 5 nights.

At the beautiful Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge in Julatten (more on this great spot in a future post), I discovered my ability to maintain coherent thought processes disappears completely during a night of the infernal drip drip dripping that comes from camping under trees in adverse weather conditions.  After 9 nights?  Well, lets just say that I reached new heights in the 'going troppo' stakes!!

It was here that I realised that 'Dry' season is a relative rather than literal term.  It was also here that the cumulative effect of camping over wet grass for over 3 weeks culminated in an outbreak of unattractive mould underneath our trailer bed ends.  And while people who actually live here during the wet season will probably find this comical, I've compiled a list of tips for campers below.  Enjoy!!

How to tell if it's the Wet Tropics Dry season:
  1. Your salt won't shake out because it's full of moisture
  2. Your table has moisture rings caused by condensation from cold drinks
  3. Your towels never dry out
  4. Anything damp (and that's EVERYTHING) starts to grow mould and/or mildew
  5. The local chemist stocks several different brands of prickly heat powder
  6. You spend more money on the clothes drier than you do the washing machine
  7. Your hiking boots are covered in mud and fungoidal growths
  8. You can see the grass growing
  9. You actually turn on the heater to dry out your mattress/cushions/bedding
  10. Mud is more of a problem than dust

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Cooktown Cuisine and Crocodiles - Cape York, Queensland

We were lurking in the cemetery (as one does), ducking around the headstones and under trees in a vain attempt to escape the sweeping drizzle. Another half hour and the secrets of the fascinating historical figures interred in the Cooktown cemetery – the Chinese community shrine, the strange saga of Mary Watson of Lizard Island, the identity of the 'Normanby Woman' - could have been ours. BUT … the mysteries of this frontier town on Cape York will have to wait for another day. Ah well, it's not called the 'Wet Tropics' for nothing!

“You don't look happy,” my mate remarked, his powers of observation clearly sharpened by our extreme tourism adventure.

Well … I thought. EXCUUUUUSE me for not beaming like a lighthouse while trudging the 2km back to the car through the blinding drizzle, trying not to look like a wet T-shirt competition contestant. But, I smiled and thought of the bakery just down the road.

The Cooktown Bakery is a microcosm of the towns multicultural heritage. As well as mighty fine baked goods (go back for the 'Ned Kelly' pie and Rocky Road slice), it contains a variety of other cuisines including Chinese takeaway, Golden Fried Chicken (rural version of KFC), sandwiches, pizza and sushi! There's also a milk bar – and perhaps the only reason the Italian Pizza/Pasta/Thai restaurant isn't housed under the same roof is that there's no more room.

Our first attempt to patronise the Botanic Gardens cafe was foiled by the Queensland Governor General's visit, conveniently timed for morning tea. Protocol demanded that staff were not to address her directly, which seems curious, even senseless in an area where the odds of encounters with snakes, spiders, green tree ants, leeches and cane toads are higher than average. How would one advise her of impending danger? Slip her minders a note? BUT … I guess she deserves our pity as protocol, pomp and circumstance will never allow her to sample the delights of the Cooktown Bakery...

The yellow warning signs at nearly every beach, river and creek crossing remind one of the ever present danger of crocodiles in this wilderness area. We stayed at the Endeavour Falls Tourist Park - 32 km northwest of Cooktown in a spectacular rural setting, so idyllic the grounds are thick with birds and butterflies, copulating merrily amongst the 800+ palms. But the waterfall and its pools lost their 'croc free' status with a recent sighting downriver – and a crocodile actually took a tourist further down the Endeavour river a couple of years ago, so no one's taking any chances. At least the barramundi in the aquarium at the shop has no teeth!

After locating a couple of Telstra 'NOT' spots, my travelogue is a bit behind – but it's good to be back on line! See you again soon!!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Favourite Place #4 - Troubridge Island, SA

You'd think Troubridge Island and lighthouse would already be several years into a conservation program to preserve this unique South Australian heritage icon, but the SA State Government has different priorities.  The costly shrines to its self indulgence are in urban areas where the votes are, meaning this unique spot is at risk of being lost forever.

Think I'm being a little melodramatic? 

The fine historical museum at Edithburgh, closest mainland town to the island, shows the lighthouse surrounded by land.  As you can see from this photo at low tide in 2009, it's now right on the edge with sandbagging to prevent further erosion from tidal action and winter storms.

SO ... my tip for the day is do yourself a favour and book a visit to Troubridge Island while you still can!  Yes, accomodation for up to 10 people is available in one of the lighthouse keepers cottages.  You'll have the whole island to yourselves - apart from the resident little penguins, black faced cormorants and crested terns.  The island is actually a conservation park so boats (apart from your transport) are not allowed to land.


With water as clear as the tropics, and transport to the island via tractor and trailer, you immediately enter a parallel universe.  No corner stores here - everything required for your stay must be brought with you.

So what do you do on a deserted island?

Snorkelling, fishing, beach footy, BBQs, walks around the island, penguin spotting, birdwatching, table tennis and general relaxation for starters.  And the fence thoughtfully built around the lighthouse lower deck is designed to stop those who've had a few from accidentally falling into the sea, which, judging from the comments (some with elaborate illustrations) in the visitors books from years past is a real threat!  If you play your cards right and ask nicely, you may be lucky enough to get an escorted tour to the top of the lighthouse! 
 

All too soon, it was back on the boat and back to the reality of the mainland for us, with vows to return before this fabulous experience is no longer available.

Many before us have had multiple repeat visits (as is evidenced in the visitors books), such is the spell of this magical place.

But don't take my word for it - check it out for yourself!



Thursday, July 8, 2010

Hinchinbrook LITE or How we walked the Thorsborne Trail ...

As Hinchinbrook Island virgins, the caravan park day cruise deal - $50 per person instead of the usual $99 - was mighty attractive!  Especially when it transpired that accomodation pick up and lunch was the only difference between the two tours ... hell, even I can make a sandwich to save $49!  The package was really just a teaser for the delights of Australia's largest island national park - also WAAAAY cheaper and more low-commitment than a more full on experience such as hiking the Thorsborne trail and/or actually staying on/exploring the island!  We didn't even know if we'd want to do these things!!

As it turned out, the cheapskate deal was a bonus as the day started out grey, drizzling and misty with the famous Hinchinbrook peaks barely visible.

There may be another reason for the great distance from the marina car park to the cruise check in centre, but my money is on staff economy.  The lone receptionist dealing with day trippers, resort check in/out and travel bookings may have been even more harrassed if travellers hadn't been arriving in dribs and drabs, gasping for coffee after our long hike from the car park - but even so, a pretty long queue had developed by the time we arrived.

Happily, this coincided with the arrival of the cruise coordinator who told day cruise travellers to move to the next counter.  Sadly, this immediately triggered an unexpected Grey Nomad 'Shame File' incident when an ageing queue jumper immediately mateialised at the counter.  As she wasn't in the queue in front of, or behind us, I can only assume she dropped down from the ceiling as bats are wont to do ...

The overcast day gave us a rare piece of luck, with the opportunity to see the Island, channel and seascape in shades of grey rather than the ubiquitous tropical wonderland colour palette of travel brochure photos.  My luck held as the swimsuit I wore under my shorts and shirt gave a valuable insulating layer against the cold winds in the channel!  There was little chance I'd be using my swimsuit for anything else after keywords such as 'wilderness area', 'crocodiles', 'marine stingers' and 'own risk' kept popping up in the cruise directors 'safety' chat.

The transport punt was tied to the cruise boat by a rope 20 or so metres long.  Depending on the current, swell and wave action the punt either skimmed over the waves like a hyperactive dolphin, or lumbered along making heavy weather of it like a recalcitrant cow on the end of a tether.  I guess the inadvertent entertainment this provided replaced the dugong search promised by the cruise advertising blurb, although the captain explained that most dugongs weren't in the channel anyway, as they tended to hang around the jetty!!  I guess we could always go look for them ourselves on the jetty when we returned if we really wanted to see them - nothing like a bit of responsibility transference, huh?! 

BUT ... even the gloom and cold couldn't mask the magnificence that is Hinchinbrook Island.  Massive volcanic peaks tower above the mangrove swamps, emerging from the mist to reveal impenetrable forest and rocky slopes.   The endless sweeping curve of beach, butterflies and birds, and deep rainforest down to the sand make an unforgettable vista. A boat could easily get lost in the maze of channels and creeks through the mangroves, and the evidence of wild storms and torrential rain just highlights the harsh beauty of the island.

It's no surprise that Captain Cook, first European to explore the area, thought it was part of the mainland. 

After a short punt ride, we finally set foot on Hinchinbrook Island.  A party of hikers committed to several days of strenuous hiking on the Thorsborne trail passed us, togged out like cross country skiers with masks, poles and protective clothing.  Inspired by their efforts, and sighting the start of the trail close by at the end of the beach, we plunged into the rainforest and walked the trail for 30 minutes or so before returning to the boat and home.  So you see, we DID walk the Thorsborne trail - but like the rest of our Hinchinbrook experience, we did it the LITE way!

Incidentally, there's a killer public toilet view from the mainland across the Hinchinbrook Channel to the island - but heavy cloud cover meant the photo didn't meet my stringent Australia's Scenic Public Toilets standards.  But don't despair!  If the weather's any better when we head south, I'll try to capture it for you then ...

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Where Backpackers, Grey Nomads and School Holidaymakers meet in Queenslands Far North

I love the smell of diesel in the mornings.  And the morning diesel death rattle from the vehicles whose owners subscribe to the 'I MUST start the engine AT LEAST 15 minutes before I want to go'school of thought is almost enough to drown out the shrieks of the Bush Stone Curlews that have run rampant through the last three caravan parks we've been in. 

We've reached Cardwell, between Townsville and Cairns in Queenslands Wet Tropics, and are back on the mass movement trail after a blessed few days of near solitude.  Cardwell's unique position as gateway to Hinchinbrook Island, Australia's largest island National Park, brings three diverse and generally incompatible groups of tourists together - the backpackers, the Grey Nomads and the school holidaymakers - with not always happy results!

However, it's been the scene of one of my greatest triumphs.  To backtrack ... there was an Australian, and American and an Asian.  No, it's not a bad joke, it's the three young - so young their car had 'L' plates - female backpackers we met on the Dalrymple Gap track.  The more adventurous (and energetic) can cross the gap following the old supply route - a trek of around 6 hours each way, but the 'short' version, a 4km round trip, is to climb straight up the mountainside, on a steep rocky track with multiple creek crossings to an old heritage listed bridge at the top of the gap, then straight back down again. 

We met the backpackers on their descent and asked how far to the bridge.  The American consulted her watch.  'It's taken us 35 minutes so far,' she divulged.  All of them assured us the track got MUCH steeper - concern possibly triggered by my red face and/or general air of sweaty dishevellement.  Despite our age, we plodded on up the very steep gradient, thinking that if it'd taken three fit young women at least half my age 35 minutes to come DOWN, it would take us quite a bit longer to go UP.  BUT ... it only took another 40 minutes!  AND ... we got back to the meeting spot in only 30 minutes!!  How good is that???  Or more precisely, how good are we?!?!?!

Incidentally, with uncharacteristic understatement, the Queensland Government website states there is no wheelchair access on the track.

We're now within cooee of Tully, home of the fabulous golden gumboot, possibly the only gumboot in Australia, if not the world to have its own festival!  It's 7.9 metres high (311 inches) - to commemorate the record annual rainfall in 1950.  To put this in perspective, it'd take 13 years of average rainfall at my home in Australia's South to clock up that much rain!

Our quest for Australia's best bakery continues, with multiple visits required for new contenders!  Rad's Bakery (Ingham) actually has curried prawn or scallop mornay pies, and a fantastic melt-in-your-mouth pineapple/ginger slice, along with brilliant versions of the more conventional pie with peas, vanilla slice and jam/cream doughnut.  The Cardwell Bakery has huge, amazing pies - the breakfast pie with bacon, egg, tomato, mince and cheese the go-back-for treat, along with massive lamingtons loaded with jam and cream, and an aircraft carrier sized apple turnover that almost - but not quite - defeated my mate!  Yes, we need all the strenuous walks we can get!

Till next time!!
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