Our friends Simon, Hilary and daughters (110 Around Oz) invited us for a camping trip down south of Sydney for the weekend. Having been stationery in Sydney for what seems like an eternity Xavier and I jumped at the opportunity to escape to the bush. An early start saw us heading south with minimal traffic, and within 3 hours we had headed inland from Nowra for the last few kilometres to Coolenden. The property is privately owned and given the recent chills of winter there were very few campers there.
Xavier and I checked out the Shoalhaven river that snakes around the perimeter of the property. Fast flowing and quite deep it is popular with kayakers and anglers alike, but way too cold at this time of year for a dip let alone a paddle.
Without the trusty Camprite trailer we had resorted to the other extreme, a tiny two-man tent, three poles that can be put up in a couple of minutes.
The weather gods were kind, and once the glowing sun sank behind the trees a roaring campfire replaced the warmth. With foil covered spuds in the coals, a pot of chili over the top, and the first bottle of red open the night was set.
The morning was overcast, threatening rain so Simon suggested we go for a drive. We packed up, and watched Satin Bower birds hopping around as we finished our breakfast.
As we turned off the dirt road onto Mintbush track and viewed a drop into what appeared to be a mud-bath I suddenly realised this wasn’t the Sunday drive I was expecting and I probably hadn’t prepared as well as I might have. Descending through the mud was fine but when Simon explained we’d return the same way I was left wishing I’d checked the winch was working ok. Dozens of dirtbikes ploughed their way around us as we negotiated the increasingly rocky descent. We negotiated the creek crossing then turned around before the track becomes known as Monkey Gum. With one hairy moment where I found myself leaning against the window to ensure enough wheels stayed in contact with road (two is usually enough to feel ok) the return was slow and steady, picking the path through rocks and washouts. The final mudbath exit proved easier than expected too. Two “souped up” cars made it look harder by getting temporarily bogged, and some aerial antics that must have hurt their undercarriage but we all exited gracefully and headed back for lunch and the return home. A very short but enjoyable weekend escape.
As the weather deteriorates here in Sydney, with the arrival of winter imminent, our thoughts returned to those warmer places we visited last year as the temperatures started dropping. One of our favourites was a small eco-resort called Goombaragin, where we camped for a few days with two other families we had met on the road. Our hosts Cathy and John were very welcoming, showing us some of the local ways and putting on a communal campfire in the evenings for everyone. The area is magnificent to explore, and it is even safe to swim here from the beach. Heed the crocodile signs in this area though, particularly around the rivers and mangroves. It’s a rugged road from Broome but still relatively accessible if you drive carefully.
Look out for the Ardi festival around June, when many local artists from across the peninsula display their talents.
Shortly after leaving Armidale we chanced upon a sign to the grave of Nat Buchanan who died at the age of 72 in 1901. Like we did, you are probably wondering who Nat Buchanan is, but we discovered that after arriving in Australia from Ireland in 1837, he went on to create an unrivalled reputation droving cattle. The plaque next to the grave explained all his feats and having visited some of the areas he was droving we could well appreciate the achievement.
Driving further along the road in the Northern Tablelands another sign triggered me to turn off to the Apsley Falls. I had read about these and also was keen to see what the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park had to offer. Two sets of falls plunge some 60m into the precipitous Apsley gorge and a series of lookouts offer some amazing vantage points to watch. The water levels were low and the river disappears beneath rubble at one point re-emerging around the next bend in the gorge.
Mooraback camp is a quiet oasis that lies in Werrikimbe National Park, and adjacent to the Oxley River National Park. Classified as a Gondwanaland forest, it is the remnant of forest from the supercontinent of the same name that split into the continents that we know today. The homestead was handed over to the National Parks in 1975 and is now critical habitat to a number of endangered plants and animals, including the River Hastings mouse. This rodent was believed extinct for over 100 years until rediscovered here in the 1980s.
Reaching an altitude of up to 1200m on the drive up it was quiet a refreshing change, from the mid 30 degrees of the previous day, as temperatures dropped to a brisk 16 degrees.
Driving into the clouds we were regularly sprinkled with fine drizzle. On arrival we had choice of the 5 sites, all recently mowed luscious green patches dispersed amongst the trees. A fire-pit and supply of wood offered us probably the last opportunity to have a campfire on this adventure. As daylight vanished and everyone else disappeared into bed the forest suddenly lit up with tiny flashing lights, and for 30 minutes a display of fire flies flitted gracefully between the trees in the forest in pursuit of one another. Hannah was still awake and came to watch this magical finale to our trip with me.
From the camp there are two easy walks, one takes you through a number of habitats in the forest behind. This 15 minute walk showcased many local birds, crimson and eastern rosellas, white-eared honeyeaters, golden whistlers, rufous fantails, red-browed finches, fairy-wrens, silver-eyes, and treecreepers.
The second walk is a 5km walk that takes you around the headwaters of the Hastings river that runs towards Port Macquarie, where it finally meets the Pacific Ocean. The streams and pools abound with platypus and Xavier and I were fortunate to see a number of them in the late afternoon.
The hillsides up in this NSW alpine region abound with colour at the moment and we had fun spotting many different spring flowers, including a few different orchids. When the clouds finally cleared and the sun emerged this place was a truly tranquil gem and worth driving the additional kilometres from the main road to visit.
One last night, and time for a final episode of the “bushman’s TV”. Each episode lasts as long as your wood supply, and though often similar, are equally riveting for young and old with every viewing. The last of the kid’s houses built from firewood were sacrificed, another display from the fire flies and it was time to farewell this remote spot.
The following day saw us heading north to Sandy Cape, up past Indian Head, Waddy Point, through the cute settlement of Orchid Beach, before heading up the beach again. With the tide being quite high on the way up we had to briefly leave the beach at Ngkala Rocks taking a bypass track that squeezed us through the rocks. We spotted two more dingos on this trip and at Sandy Cape the road to the lighthouse was impassable due to the tide, so we took to foot to walk over the dunes to the Carree campsite. The tall sand dunes plummet to the seashore and the kids ran up and down in the hot sunshine whilst we watched. The lighthouse poked out from the trees several kilometers to the west of us but too far to walk in the heat.
On the return trip we visited the Champagne Pools, somewhat disappointing due to the fact that each pool had fifty backpackers wallowing in it, some of them stripping off and crushing snails to feed the fish, despite the “no collecting” signs.
When challenged one said he was with an Aboriginal who said it was ok to do so. Whilst indigenous people do have privileges to collect within National Parks, tourists don’t and when others started copying the marine life will soon be stripped and spoilt for the future. I found it surprising that the indigenous guide had allowed this, as most aboriginal people we have met consider themselves to be guardians of the land they occupy. In this case perhaps the lure of the dollar was more important than preservation of the environment.
We walked to the tips of Waddy Point and Indian head to look for sharks, turtles and more but returned disappointed.
On the return trip we headed east at Orchid Beach to visit Wathumba, a large estuarine area, with a wooded coastline and mangroves growing in the sand. This beautiful spot is notorious for sandflies but we didn’t witness many at all.
Another day, another excursion and we headed south to take in the Central Lakes drive. Out timing of the tide wasn’t good and when we arrived at Eli creek some thirty cars on both sides of the creek were awaiting the tide to abate. Some of the Tag-Along tours had fixed itineraries though and were not prepared to wait. The 4WD vehicles driven primarily by inexperienced backpackers nervously entered the water, sometimes to their leaders horror even taking a precarious passage over rocks. Whilst the water wasn’t too deep I was prepared to wait a bit longer rather than taking a brine rinse under the bonnet.
One vehicle stalled on the exit and couldn’t be restarted by the driver. Without a snorkel it looked like this could be the end of their day but the leader emerged from the back of his vehicle with a can of CYC spray and with a prolonged spray under the bonnet life was restored in the engine and off they drove.
As we crossed shortly after four guys were digging sand out from the wheels of a very bogged car near the front of the queue.
Once across the creek and past Yidney and Poyungan rocks along the beach the track heads inland and a short drive through the forest brings you to the Lake Wabby Lookout. The lake is easily accessible from here and despite the threats of a dark storm approaching we couldn’t resist. The water was surprising warm for the deepest lake on the island and with steep dunes plunging into the deep water it was a favourite with the kids.
Beyond that is another major attraction, Lake Mackenzie, whose brilliant white sandy shores and pale blue acidic water grace all the tourist brochures. To avoid crowds, a short walk along the beach, and over a few steps, brings you to a second beach. Still no sun but plenty of crystal clear warm water to swim in – irresistible. The drive continued past Lakes Birrabeen, Benaroon and Boomanjin, all picturesque and much less frequented by the crowds of tourists but time was flying and we had to drive back up the beach.
As the rusting wreckage of the Maheno emerged from the sea spray in the distance we knew were almost back at camp again where the kids needed to be woken up, having fallen asleep in the car, after another exhausting day on Fraser Island
After over a week’s unscheduled stay in Noosa it was time to revisit our last major 4WD challenge of our trip, Fraser Island.
Having visited twice previously the plan this time was to explore beyond the typical tourist attractions. Previous trips had been restricted to 3 days and had seen us staying on the south east side of the island exploring only half of one side of the island.
The ferry terminal at Inskip Point is a beach of soft sand 100m from the unsealed road. As we drove onto the beach the ferry had just departed, but as I accelerated across the beach the skipper must have seen us, reversed and returned to pick us up. The ferry was empty so we got our own personal ferry service which made it seem worthwhile considering the rather pricey cost for a 5 minute crossing. The deckhand joked that he would save us a place on our return trip in a week’s time.
We had timed the tides well and drove from Hook Point along the beach and up the eastern beach, some 65km to Yurru campsite, just north of Cathedral Beach camp. The beach is under normal road regulations with a speed limit of 80km but following recent rain the unwary can be caught out at this speed with washouts.
Despite being the largest sand island in the world, over 100km long and 20km wide, there is no shortage of static and flowing freshwater and the erosion of beach sand caused by creeks can cripple the suspension of even the most sturdy cars if hit too fast.
Driving up the beach we were treated to the sight of two inquisitive dingos, then as we approached the Eurong settlement six dingos including young pups were running around the vehicles of some fishermen. Nothing beats the traditional dingo welcome to Fraser island. A ban on dogs on the island has retained the pure-bred status for these dingos as inter-breeding often occurs back on the mainland.
Shortly before Yurru camp the majestic wreck of the Maheno emerged through the sea spray in the distance.
The Maheno sank in 1935, washed ashore in a cyclone, but sufficient remains make it an interesting stopping point for tourists. Original wooden decking still lines some of the wreck, even after exposure to daily tides and the occasional cyclone storms over the last eighty years.
On our first day a transmission warning light came on and when actions recommended by the car manual failed to rectify it we were in a bit of a quandary. It still drove so we chose to ignore it until we got off the island again!
With a very changeable and wet long range weather forecast we chose to explore as much as we could in the first two reasonable days.
The northern forests scenic drive took us initially to a lookout over Knifeblade sandblow where the tops of overrun treetops poked starkly out of the sand. Lake Allom, further inland offered a warm refreshing swim amongst the freshwater turtles. We then took a couple of tracks to explore the western coast, Awinya and Woralie creeks. With a prevailing easterly wind, it was nice to experience calm beaches with no surf on the western side of the island. The camp at Woralie was very attractive though the creek crossing was very deep and not one that we were prepared to attempt. We were half way across when I decided it needed to be waded and when the water reached my chest I was glad I hadn’t proceeded.
It was fun to watch a car coming the other way, without a snorkel, as the bow wave poured over the bonnet and up their windscreen.
We explored another track that headed towards Moon Point but not being the scheduled track resulted in many scratches and a nasty ding in the side of the car. To add insult to injury the last 7km to Moon Point were closed.
The track leads through magnificent forest, where mature trees dwarf the cars as they pass through. Giant Kauri trees give way to lower scrub and the outlook continually changes. The narrow roads are restricted to 30km and constantly keep the driver busy negotiating the way through natural obstacles and fallen trees can easily halt progress.
Back to the coast we headed, taking a less precipitous road, descending 900m again towards Innisfail, then south to Mission Beach, driving past Djiru National Park before entering the quaint tourist village. The council operated caravan park sits behind the beach and offers powered sites for next to nothing so we settled in for a few days. We needed to get some schoolwork done with the kids, and the nearby library beckoned.
The National Park appeared to offer much better walking tracks than in Cape Tribulation so we set off initially on a short walk at Lacey Creek. The narrow path snakes through the thick forest, criss-crossing the creek and a few tell-tale cassowary droppings littered the track but none were spotted. I got mesmerised for 20 minutes watching a tree snake exploring the forest, systematically checking branches for food.
We walked the 3.2km Dreaming Trail, witnessed more cassowary droppings, oversized mounds of semi digested seeds, littering the path, but still no sightings. Many of the seeds were already germinating proving how effective the bird is as a jungle gardener.
With interest waning in the rain only Xavier and I continued from this track onto the 6km Musgravea track to Licuala. There was so much evidence of cassowaries that we were very optimistic about seeing one and sure enough 3km in a beautiful big specimen stood preening itself in the sunlight in the middle of the track. We carefully approached to about 20m, as these birds can be dangerous, particularly if protecting their chicks, but at this point it ducked into the undergrowth never to be seen again. A further 50m on and we encountered an echidna, an animal that we haven’t seen for ages.
Back at camp the kids were very excited to find a few very large and carefully compiled humpys on the beach, spending plenty of time hanging out in them with other kids. It was good for them to find lots of kids around their age that they could let some steam off with.
The adjacent park was lined with rather attractive palms with clumps of fruit of different colours hanging below the leaves and Amanda got particularly excited when she found out there were markets on whilst we were there. She returned with bags of local produce, including monster bananas a bargain at 14 for a dollar! Oscar scored himself a huge second hand tackle box for 4 dollars, Hannah headed for the pineapple slushie stall, and Xavier spent time at the gemstone stall. He later returned with his collection to show the man.
The laid-back feeling around Mission Beach was very appealing but the dreary weather that had commenced once we hit the rainforest, continued. The wind and rain prevented us from visiting nearby Dunk Island but it was still very relaxing and the kids completed a big chunk of work for school. The time to leave came too soon
With balding tyres, worn brakes and a car desperately in need of another service I wasn’t keen to attempt the Creb track (4WD track to Cooktown) this time. It is not recommended for trailers and the steep ascents and descents become particularly hazardous in wet conditions. It had been overcast and we had experienced a few showers so we decided we would have a look at the Roaring Meg Falls at the start of the track, some 24km off the bitumen. We called the locals for permission and were duly given approval. The road was actually in good condition though it started pouring as we walked into the falls. A memorial to a lady who slipped and died on the falls in recent years was enough to deter the kids from going too close to the edge. Upstream was a more inviting swimming hole on a nice day, but the rain put us off.
Back on the main road again we visited Bloomfield, and another waterfall that was perhaps more impressive than Roaring Meg.
Daintree National Park was beckoning and finally we made it, staying in PKs Jungle Village, offering only a few camping spots. Finally the rains that had been threatening delivered with regular downpours. Given we have probably only had two weeks of rain in the last 11 months it was quite a pleasant change, despite a noticeable chill that accompanied it. We walked along the beach, over the headland and along Cape Tribulation Beach looking for cassowaries without success.
We took the boardwalk walks through the forest and mangroves. No cassowaries but we found a plethora of forest fruit that they dine on. We did find the peppermint stick insects that only live on the mangrove pandanus and are endemic to the area. When handled they squirt a fluid that has a peppermint scent.
We were keen to find cassowaries and the roadsigns showing places of recent sightings just served to tease us. Cape Tribulation was quite commercially orientated so we visited the Floraville ice creamery where they manufacture their own delectable ice creams. I tried the Sapote fruit one, tasting like chocolate pudding, finding it hard to fault. All the others devoured theirs swiftly leaving no trace in their tubs.
Next on the agenda was the Jungle Bug and Butterfly museum in Diwan. Housing an impressive cabinet display of bugs from around the world. The kids got to hold some local stick insects too. The property also offered a rainforest area by the river for a swim and cassowary sightings. The kids swam but this was the first day a cassowary hadn’t showed up for a few days.
We drove up and down the coast, up side roads, but still no sightings. We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a Bennetts Tree Kangaroo bounding across the road one afternoon, one of only two elusive species in Australia.
The cassowary is an endangered species, numbering around 1200 in Australia, and confined to the dense rain forests of the far north of Queensland. Daintree is where the “rainforest meets the reef” and speed humps line the roads to reduce unnecessary injury to birds wandering onto the roads. Someone has doctored a number of the roadsigns along the coastal road to give their humorous take on the situation (see photo below).
As we drove towards the Daintree River ferry a spontaneous decision made me turn off the main road and head for Cow Bay. A couple of kilometres down the road two adult cassowaries with a chick emerged from the thick forest and sauntered slowly across the road. We drove slowly towards them for a photograph and some video then within two minutes they melted back into the forest on the opposite side of the road. We were all thrilled at our chance meeting.
We left the rainforest behind once we crossed the Daintree River ferry and headed to Wonga Beach. This was our camp while we had a quick explore of the area. Mossman Gorge beckoned but after all the magnificent gorges and falls we have seen it didn’t seem right to have to pay to visit. We found an interesting site, as we explored, commemorating the only civilian casualty on the eastern seaboard in World War 2. Bombs were dropped in a Japanese air raid on lights that they believed were Cairns. The Suger Cane farm in Saltwater, near Mossman was hit and a two and half year old girl was hit with shrapnel from the crater.
As we left Lakefield National Park we were reaching for our phones to search Wikicamps for our next site. This App has proved invaluable on the trip, although many folks “secret” spots are now accessible to anyone with the App. One that looked good lies just north of Cooktown, on land owned by a sprightly 90 year old local named Eddy. Elim Beach is a fairly large site bordering the mangrove-lined beach, offering all basic amenities at a cheap price, and a short walk from Coloured Sands beach.
We met Eddy just outside his house making traditional style woomeras, or spear throwers. A bit deaf and not a man of many words but an interesting elder to talk to. He was disappointed that youngsters are no longer interested in the traditional ways and he seemed to be making as many woomeras as he could because no-one else will make them when he is gone. When quizzed about the properties of marine putty over original tree sap used as glue he shrugged gently dismissing the inferior quality with “white man’s glue”. He’s happy to use it though as his supply of traditional tree sap has dried up, again due to his fellow clan members rarely collecting it these days. The next morning we saw him leaving for town, dressed very smartly in jeans and long-sleeved shirt, probably one of the last of the “big men” in this region, and a great privilege to meet him.
Sandy, who we met the previous day, joined us at Elim Beach and joined us walking down to the coloured sands. We collected bags of different coloured sands, and Sandy painted the kids faces different colours yellows, oranges, and reds. There was even black sand.
The small art centre in nearby Hope Vale was worth a visit and showcased the local talent. We love the way indigenous artwork embraces natural products, and uses seeds either as “canvases” or for necklaces. On our way through Amanda had got talking to the local Lutherian pastor, the village still being very “church orientated”. When she couldn’t find a lemon in the grocery stall to go with Oscar’s Barra he sent us up the road to see his wife who donated one to the cause. The town of Hope Vale was a very friendly place that we should have spent more time in but we were on the move.
Cooktown was a short drive south from Elim Beach. It was windy, some say the windiest place in Australia but at least it was sunny too. We visited the museum to see the anchor and cannon from Captain Cook’s ship the Endeavour that were salvaged nearby where the ship had hit a reef just off the coast on 10th June 1770. All the ships heaviest items were thrown overboard to save the ship from sinking. Cook climbed a nearby mountain, where the lighthouse stands today, to observe the tricky situation he was in, with multiple reefs and unfavourable winds making further passage along the coast quite treacherous. We visited the spot but not being sailors couldn’t really contemplate his dilemma. The view was impressive though, and the reefs were still there too, scattered across the horizon! Back at the museum the kids performed a treasure hunt and I found it interesting to find European items that pre-date settlement, often by hundreds of years. Of particular interest were 15th century Chinese storage urns (probably brought by Chinese in the gold rush) and a rather ornate piece of Dutch porcelain from the 17th Century I believe, possibly even earlier. It had been acquired from the Jardine family who apparently had found it up near the tip of Cape York. History could have been written so differently!
South of Cooktown we had a couple of mandatory stops on the itinerary, the first being Archer Point. Recommended by a few travellers and Wikicamps, we stopped at a very windblown beach for lunch, the few caravans tucked behind palms for cover. The view was pleasant but the wind was thwarting even the bravest fishermen’s attempts to catch dinner.
We then headed inland through the Black Mountain National Park which are very aptly named. The range consists of massive black boulders of granite. With no soil very little grows there, and that which can survive has to endure temperature extremes as the rocks have terrific capacity to absorb solar heat. One large ancient tree high up appeared to have lost its battle to survive and a brown carcass sat perched high above us in the rock pile as we drove past.
Beyond here we stopped in to visit the Lion’s Den Hotel. Built in 1875 in Helenvale, next to the Little Annan River, this country pub is a well known tourist attraction, with all the expected associated paraphernalia. Large artworks cover the walls and any gaps on the wall have been covered in traveller’s graffiti, for a gold coin donation to the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). We left our Fifty Toes Walkabout mark, squeezing it in below the largest artwork in the room gladly contributing to the worthy cause of RFDS.
By late afternoon we arrived at Home Rule, in Rossville, a 100+ acre property, bordering national park, that hosts two large music festivals every year. Nestled in ancient rainforest next to a clear Wallaby Creek we were very surprised to see we were the only people there. The Wallaby Creek Festival is a festival of arts and music that runs for 3 days in late September every year, and considering some 500 people had been camping there only a week or so prior it was still in great condition with lush green lawns and only a few muddy patches. The rock festival hosts a larger crowd and lasts longer.
A 45 minute stroll through the forest took us to the Home Rule falls, actually within the adjacent National Park. A bracing swim was required and thirty toes braved the elements on a very overcast day, clambering over rocks that were as slippery as an ice rink. The tranquility was wonderful, only temporarily spoilt when I nearly trod on a rather large venomous red-bellied snake.
The quiet camp also gave us time to catch up on school work.