National Park

Mackay and surroundings

With our wheels firmly back on the bitumen again it seemed fitting to indulge in a little luxury and as we headed down the coast towards Dolphin Heads, near Mackay, watching the sugar cane harvesting in progress.

The road down the coast is regularly transected with small gauge railway lines that are used by sugar cane farmers to transport cane or mulch to and from the processing factories. We witnessed plenty of activity with harvesting in the fields, loading and movement of the trains and the processing factory chimneys puffing away, indicative of the industry inside.

Dolphin Heads Resort

Dolphin Heads Resort

In Mackay we stayed at the beautiful Dolphin Heads resort for a few days lounging by the pool, relaxing.

View from beach of Dolphin Heads

View from beach of Dolphin Heads

We drove to Eungella National Park looking for platypus in the pouring rain. We found plenty of birds including the particularly colourful scarlet honeyeater there but only one platypus in Broke River.

We explored Blacks Beach, Eimeo and the city of Mackay but it was a time for winding down and relaxing.

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Wallaman Falls and the S.S. Yongala

Wallaman Falls

Wallaman Falls

The highest single drop waterfalls in Australia are Wallaman Falls. A relatively small deviation from Ingham took us up into the hills again and after a steep climb over 500m from sea-level, into Girringun National Park, we were confronted with a surprisingly spectacular sheer cliff face where the water plunges 268m into a pool below that is 20m deep. It was well worth the visit and we even got five minutes of sunlight between the drizzle.

We’d set ourselves a long drive for the day so after a brief lunch we set off back down the hill to the coast. We didn’t stop in Townsville and a last minute change of plan saw us head for the town of Ayr, 100km south from Townsville.

I had booked a dive the next day on the S.S. Yongala, reputed to be one of the best wreck dives in Australia. With winds forecast at 25 knots I was expecting a cancellation but it was confirmed and my excitement levels rose as I had only done one dive in the last 11 months. We also had the car booked for a service in Townsville the next day so poor Amanda drew the long straw to drive back the 100km with the kids. We were told it could be serviced in Ayr but when we phoned the garage at 5pm the response was that the service desk was closed – better to go where they understand customer service.

The morning was sunny again with less wind and I was dropped at the dive shop at 7.30am. The kids were actually excited because they had been promised a trip to the aquarium where a whole portfolio of talks awaited them.

The S.S. Yongala was a passenger ship that sank in 1911 in a cyclone as it headed north up the coast on its 99th voyage to get a refit. All 122 on board died but the wreck was not found until 1958. The Navy performing a mine sweep in the area had noted its probable position in 1947 but the charts with notation were only rediscovered later. The wreck is accessed via a 30 minute bumpy ride in rigid hull inflatable dive boat.

The wreck itself lies on sand and as such provides an artificial reef for a plethora of underwater life. The wreck is covered with corals and among these a profusion of small fish thrive. Schools of damselfish and glass fish shimmy and start in unison as larger predatory trivially and mackerel cruise past. Coral trout and enormous cod lurk in the shadows of the holds, and under the rusting infrastructure. Large Moray eels surveyed the scene from their hide holes and Batfish the size of dinner plates cruise around in small schools. The more you look the more you find. Turtles kept popping up all over the wreck, as did the highly venomous and ever-curious olive sea snakes. Dense schools of jacks and other medium sized fish aggregate at the bow and stern, barely moving as you swim through them. We  were blessed with great visibility making it an unforgettable day’s diving.

Unbeknownst to me my kids were revelling in a more controlled marine environment at the same time. On my return they were gushing over Myrtle the one-eyed Turtle that they saw in the turtle hospital (of course), and the talks they had been religiously attending all day in Townsville aquariuwm, Reef HQ. They had been watching Nemos at close quarters, had up close fun in the discovery lagoons and even tried on old school pearl diving helmets.

This was a day to remember!

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Back to the Atherton Tablelands

 

Lumholtz Tree Kangaroos

Lumholtz Tree Kangaroos

After a quick trip into Cairns to pick up mail we headed for the hills again. Having not spent much time in the Atherton Highlands we chose to explore a little deeper this time and took the steepest, most windy road available. Well it wasn’t planned that way! The direct road from Cairns to the highlands rose over 900m snaking its way up from Gordonvale to Yungaburra. The glimpses back towards the sea were amazing however I needed to watch the road carefully to avoid mishap. We sneaked a peak at Lake Barrine but with sleeping kids in the back we pressed on to Millaa Millaa which was our planned base for a few days.

Hoping to spot a few new birds I got up early to explore the neighbourhood and spotted two Lumholtz tree kangaroos, about 500m down the road on the edge of the village. The long dangling tails were a giveaway and the beautiful animals resembling oversize teddy bears even put on their best poses for me.

We drove the waterfall circuit that incorporates Millaa Millaa falls, supposedly the most photographed falls in Australia, Zillie and Elinjaa falls too.

The forests surrounding nearby Lake Eacham were alive with new birdsong and I was lucky enough to find tooth-billed bowerbirds and spotted catbirds, the former having a very untidy bower made of overturned leaves in a scraped area. The Lake itself is a a crater lake formed from the explosive reaction of magma meeting the water table. Steep sides descend up to 65m into the deepest part of the lake and the old established rainforest make an interesting bush walk, past, even through, at times, large fig trees whose roots and buttresses clasp on to the sides of the crater.

We also saw the 500 year old Curtain Fig, whose root system appears to cascade from the skies. We revisited Mount Hypipamee National Park to see the Crater Lake that we’d missed previously. This crater was formed by a volcanic gas explosion, the granite walls today being sheer and some 70m across. The lake lies almost 60m below the rim and is 70m deep. This park often has cassowary sightings but not when we visit.

We visited a couple of dairies, the Gallo Dairyland one proving to be the favourite. The cheese and chocolate tastings proved irresistible and we came home clutching an array of mouth-watering produce. The tea farm was a bit of a disappointment as the factory was being cleaned and the tea-room didn’t offer any tastings. We did spot another tree kangaroo though there.

There was so much to do we extended our stay, and even as we left we had to explore the Millaa Millaa museum before leaving. Behind the museum is the trunk of an almost 900 year old Kauri pine that fell in a storm in 2003. The timber industry thrived here for many years and the museum is full of artefacts from those times.

The Atherton Tablelands provided a much more interesting experience than the coastal commercialised tourism, offering so much variety of things to do. Once again it felt like we had barely scratched the surface, but were busy from the moment we arrived. All downtime back at camp was spent catching up with schoolwork but the few days we were there felt like we had achieved a lot.

 

 

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Back to Lakefield National Park – Oscar bags a barra!

Oscar's big barra!

Oscar’s big barra!

We bade 100 Around Oz a farewell as they sped towards Cairns to pick up schoolwork. We headed for Oyala Thumotang National Park to try to catch some Barramundi in the Archer river. When we arrived a large sign explained that the park was closed due to pig shooting, feral animal poisoning, fires, fallen logs and more. I think plague and pestilence would have been added if the notice had been bigger and I must say it was disappointing that none of the four horsemen of the apocalypse were there personally to deliver the message. Needless to say our plans hastily changed and he headed for Coen again where we met up once more with Simon, Hilary, and the girls, all of whom were somewhat surprised to see us. After a night camped behind the sExchange Hotel (yes, the sign even says this) we finally parted ways at Musgrave to head back to the Lakefield National Park.

These signs are everywhere

These signs are everywhere

Well Oscar had given it a good go so far but still hadn’t bagged himself a barramundi. With my recent change in fortune I was confident that Lakefield National Park was the place we could catch him one, so we returned to Twelve Mile Lagoon. After two hours he had lost three decent sized ones and he thought I had caught his one, a very respectable 64cm specimen.

Dad's even bigger barra

Dad’s even bigger barra

He had almost given up when I lobbed a bait out for him in a likely spot and witnessed a large fish go for it. Another cast and five minutes later he was on for the fight of his life (the fish and Oscar). With an initial tug he handed me the rod complaining that he was snagged again. I took it, felt a fish and quickly past it back to him. The noise levels increased as Oscars cries together with the fishes splashes threatened to attract a big crocodile that we had already witnessed in this area. What was worse was the prospect that I had to climb down the precipitous bank to land the fish before Oscar broke his tiny rod trying to lift it up. With Oscar sufficiently calmed down and me nervously standing inches from the water level a couple of grabs saw it landed safely on the bank. Oscar pounced on it and got stabbed in the leg by a sharp spine in a fin, temporarily distracting him from the catch. By the time he got back to camp his leg was covered in blood but it no longer mattered as he had caught his first “keeper”, a 60cm one.

Old Laura Homestead

Old Laura Homestead

Leaving there next morning we paid a visit to the Old Laura homestead where the relatively well preserved buildings give you a pretty good idea about life on the land up until the 1960s.

At this point we were planning to go to Cape Melville but it sounded like a lot of soft sand work to get out there and fishermen coming the other way had not seen much action so we skipped this and kept heading south.

Butcher's block at Old Laura Homestead

Butcher’s block at Old Laura Homestead

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The Old Telegraph Track, Cape York (Part 4)

Having had time to check the vehicles were ok and contemplate how we would complete the river crossings on our last day on the Old Telegraph Track (OTT), we left with mixed emotions. I was excited at the prospect of quite a few challenging water crossings, Simon was more concerned, suggesting he might not accompany us the whole way, and Amanda displaying some trepidation at the prospect of having to do this “solo”.

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The first ten kilometres beyond Eliot offer three water crossings and a log bridge crossing then beyond that Nolans Brook offers the deepest crossing on the track, often over one metre in depth. Simon had also heard of another crossing, Logans Creek, innocuously labelled as a ford on the map, that was reputedly as deep as Nolans Brook. We decided to assess each crossing before progressing.

All electronic gear had been moved as high as possible in the car, and recovery gear made easily accessible for this day. Amanda seemed to think water would be flooding through both car and trailer so had moved essential clothing to a safe height too. Really? We are not driving a sieve! I cut up a tarp to cover the radiator to help create a bow wave when crossing deeper water too. We also wanted an early start so we got a good look at crossings before they were silted up by traffic. Most clear pretty quickly but we wanted to be sure.

Canal Creek was fairly straightforward, avoiding the deep sections then crawling up a steep section on the far bank. Then Sam Creek and Mistake Creek past with no incident, the challenge being avoiding potholes and steep entry/exit points.

The log bridge at Cypress Creek didn’t look too bad until half way across when loud wooden cracking noises sounded beneath the car. Knowing that we were a tad overweight a touch on the accelerator got us quickly across before anything collapsed beneath.

Arriving at Cannibal Creek I had flashbacks to Palm Creek. A steep descent into the creek looked fine but a deceptive steep drop off the rock platform into the creek was unavoidable, followed by a horseshoe turn across the thigh-deep creek and a steep exit. It would be difficult to exit back out should Logans or Nolans Brook prove to much of a challenge, and at this point Simon and Hilary reluctantly chose to turn back and take the deviation road but I felt we could still do it. As a result most of the coverage is video format rather than photos

The rock drop-off took its toll as one of the support struts was broken of the Camprite. Not a critical part and easily fixable when we return it was put in the car and off we went, Simon offering to provide support at Nolans Brook from the opposite bank when he got there.

Very soon we arrived at Logans to find a deep channel and an ankle deep crossing so we took the easy route. Then came the signs offering towing and recovery assistance, so we knew we had arrived at Nolans. A quick wade proved it to be waist deep but I was confident the Pajero and Camprite would easily do it. Just in case I rigged up the winch and a strap.

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Just as I jumped into the car a car pulled up behind us and two guys jumped out with cameras. I could see dust clouds not far behind indicating further traffic arriving. I took off before they arrived keeping hard to the right of the main crossing, the bonnet sinking fast, but seconds later I emerged, pulled out of the creek, pulled over, left the engine running and checked for water – nothing inside.

By the time I walked back to the creek 7 cars were lined up waiting to cross. Apparently our early passage had caused everyone to quickly pack up to avoid having to cross in softer sand as more vehicles pass through. The fourth car, a Landcruiser took the central line, briefly disappeared and only partially re-emerged from the water. Stuck in two-wheel drive it needed a tow to exit and as he did the doors were opened to let water gush out from the front and back doors – lovely to watch especially as it wasn’t us. They hadn’t moved the shopping bags off the floor either which could have been disastrous.

Everyone cracked open a celebratory beer once over the creek except for me, who had run out a few days prior. It is actually quite hard to buy alcohol in Cape York and there are strict restrictions to protect the local indigenous communities.

 

We all jumped into the creek for a swim and the kids made the most of a rope swing over the water while we waited for Hilary and Simon to arrive from the opposite side. We had lunch at Nolans then convoy again we drove north to the Jardine River to our camp on the south side. We camped at what used to be the river crossing but after too many people got eaten by crocodiles attempting the crossing, a ferry crossing to the west was mandated. Looking at the crossing at the end of a very dry year I believe we could have made it but was happy to go swimming in the water with the kids instead. That may sound dangerous but we always send the kids in first to be sure it’s safe!

The Jardine River was approximately 50m wide here, with gin clear water flowing up to a metre over sand. It was delightful to see such a major waterway in pristine condition. Birdlife again was bountiful with kingfishers, a fawn-breasted bowerbird, honeyeaters and many more inhabiting the forest and scrub close to the river.

Clouds formed in the sky and threatened rain but at the end of the day we had a gorgeous campfire on the riverbank with 110 around Oz and talked about the OTT and our other journeys to date.

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The Old Telegraph Track, Cape York (Part 3)

Following the fun at Gunshot Creek watching others trying to avoid breaking their cars it was time for us to have some fun as we headed to Fruit Bat Falls and Eliot Falls. Less than 30km north we turned off to Fruit Bat Falls for an early morning swim before the crowds arrived. The river is fairly shallow running over a rock platform then drops a couple of metres per the falls into a sandy pool below, great fun for swimming with the kids.

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Sufficiently cooled off we decide to head to the camp at Eliot Falls for lunch. 12km away we had heard the road had a particularly deep crossing, marked innocently as a ford. Scrubby Creek as it is known was silted up on arrival so we had to wade it, water levels reaching the thigh, deeper in the middle. After watching cars go through on both sides we crossed without trauma, sticking to the one side. The park itself sits on the edge of the Jardine River National Park and Heathlands Regional Park. At Eliot there are three main waterholes called the Saucepan, Twin and Eliot falls. The former was a deep section of the Eliot river with cascades into it, allowing older kids to jump from the sides. Twin Falls was more picturesque with a series of small waterfalls into sandy bottomed shallow pools, fed from Canal Creek and more suitable for younger children. The clarity of the water proved popular with our kids as they fossicked for stones in the river bed. Pitcher plants, sundews and bladderworts, all insectivorous plants lined the riverbanks, testament to the nutrient poor soil on and around the limestone rock.

Eliot Falls themselves were the biggest falls offering 3m jumps into the middle of the horseshoe shaped falls. Below the falls deep rocky sections flowed rapidly over large boulders offering lap pool alternatives, swimming into the current. Where the two rivers meet it was noticeably warmer water coming from Canal Creek.

We spent two days here relaxing with plenty of swimming to cool us from the searing heat. For such a popular spot it was a shame to have no visible Park Ranger presence whilst we were there. People had dogs in the park, generators on at night, people ripping down trees in the campground for firewood, and Simon and Hilary even spotted people soaping up ready to wash in the rivers. It won’t be long before it becomes a lot less attractive if Queensland Parks don’t raise their game, focus on the site preservation rather than the ridiculous online camping booking system aimed at revenue raising rather than customer experience. The city-dwelling consultants who sold that one to the government should be ashamed of themselves as they clearly don’t understand how travellers operate. Maybe another blog for that one!

 

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Undara Volcanic National Park

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With no barramundi bagged in Karumba, after fishing the incoming tide for a couple of hours, it was time to move on. I consoled myself with the fact that no-one else had caught anything either. With half the day gone it was a rush to get to Mount Surprise close to Undara. Flocks of brolgas lined the road as we left Karumba.

Brolga

Cumberland chimney

Cumberland chimney

Intrigued by a large chimney rising above the trees, we took a quick stop at the remains of the town of Chamberlain, close to Georgetown. The chimney is all that remains of a once prosperous gold producing town in the 19th century. The adjacent dam still flourishes though, so we had a break for some birding.

A brief stop then at Georgetown to visit the famous gem collection in the visitor centre was stifled by a grumpy lady. She gruffly stated that it was $8 each and she would be closing in 15 minutes so we’d have to come back tomorrow. We hoped she might have said we could look around for a few dollars but it wasn’t to be.
The longest lava flow from a single volcano on the Earth’s surface can be found at Undara Volcanic National Park, some 260km south-west of Cairns. Formed some 190,000 years ago, not very old in geological terms the lava flows took place over a period of 18 months and stretched up to 160km in some directions. Today there are 69 tubes that have been found and nine of these are accessible to the public. The tubes formed where there was an optimal gradient that allowed molten lava to follow the course of a creek bed slowly enough that the surface could cool and solidify whilst inside lava continued to flow through. Many of the ceilings of these tubes have collapsed in subsequent years but those that exist can be explored on guided tours.

On the bush walk to the tubes we followed the course of a collapsed tunnel, and saw how dry sclerophyll savannah became tropical vine thicket in the river bed. Bottle trees, some over 200 hundred years old emerged out of the thicket, standing proudly above the canopy, though being deciduous and with no leaves they appeared to be dead. Axe marks on one particularly old tree were testament to how aborigines used to climb them to collect the seeds which were then ground into a flour for cooking.

The highlight of our tour was the Wind Tunnel, approximately 200m long, with resident bent wing bat colony. Unfortunately, the tour guide had a deadline to meet and I didn’t have as long as I would have liked taking photographs.

It was mid-afternoon by the end of our tour so we had to find a camp quickly, resorting to a quaint little rest stop on the Archer river. The river was full of sooty grunty, then as the stars appeared in the cooling evening a creature that we guessed, from only a few glimpses, to be a bandicoot scurried feverishly through the long grass on the perimeter of the camp. Later that night a larger visitor rudely awoke me as it rummaged through a waste bag on the kitchen, a brushtail possum. Reluctant to leave he approached me first, peering into the tent then as I emerged it made a hasty retreat up the nearest tree.

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Boudjamulla National Park (Lawn Hill)

Riversleigh is a world heritage site based on the abundance of unique fossil deposits found there. To get there we had a relatively short drive from our camp at the O’Shaughnessy River, two short, shallow, but surprisingly slippery river crossings, and the obligatory corrugated rocky dirt road that makes the outback what it is. Whilst it appears to be an unremarkable spot on the surface, the signs provided allow visitors to look past the dusty, dry rocky landscape. For even the more imaginative visitor visualisation of the change in landscape over millions of years is challenging as the fossil record represents eras of marine reef, through to swamps when giant 4m freshwater crocodiles were the apex predators, and then elephant birds whose enormous size meant they couldn’t fly.

One fossil in the rock exposed a cross section of a turtle shell thought to be long extinct, however, as recently as 1995 the gulf snapping turtle was rediscovered in the Lawn Hill river system, thriving as it has done for thousands if not millions of years without change.

A short drive from this hot arid, fly-ridden place brought us to the oasis that is Boudjamulla National Park. The deep gorge and pandanus-lined river is a verdant oasis for fish and birdlife. Water levels were low and the Cascades had no water flowing over them, however the Indarri Falls, less than a kilometre upstream, spilled beautiful green, warm, lime-saturated water into the gorge. The water turbulence at the falls causes a gaseous release of carbon dioxide and the “tufa”, as it is called, is deposited at a surprising rapid rate, 2-3cm annually. The falls are not large, less than 3m in height, and covered in pandanus growth. Below the falls barramundi and turtles abound and we all spent hours exploring every nook and cranny.

The park also offers a number of bushwalks. The Wild Dog Dreaming track leads you along the river bank to a cliff face covered in ancient petroglyph art and more recent Waanyi rainbow serpent artwork. Island Stacks offered a walk on the limestone escarpment above the gorge, but the longest walk up the gorge was closed due to the threat of a grumpy buffalo that had recently been spotted up there.

All the forests were busy with birds and we spotted a pair of large channel-billed cuckoos near the trailer, and a whistling kite’s continual call gave away it’s nest site above the river, high in the outreaching limbs of a Eucalypt tree.

Canoes could be hired to explore but there was no need, and one day we made the decision to swim the one plus kilometre back to camp through the gorge, while Amanda carried our clothes back. The kids jumped on their inner tubes (presents from our friends at Marree Hotel so long ago now) and conquered the journey in no time at all.

 

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Henbury Meteorite Conservation Reserve

On our return to Alice Springs from Uluru, with plans totally changed we decided to have a look at the Henbury Meteorite crater site. The area is pretty desolate, dry, dusty, very rocky and only small shrubs interspersed throughout the barren landscape. The campsite was fine, right next to the meteorite crater site so a quick exploration was required before sunset.

Having seen the gigantic meteorite at Wolfe Creek earlier in our trip I wasn’t expecting much of this place, however it did have a few surprises in store for us. Firstly I was surprised to read that NASA astronauts have visited the site to get a feel for the lunar landscape. It sounded more like a junket to me. The meteor itself smashed into the atmosphere approximately 4,000 years ago, but unlike Wolfe Creek this one split into several pieces, the largest being the size of a 200l oil drum. Four of these pieces hit the ground next to one another while the other eight or so remnants hit the earth some distance to the south (not immediately visible from where we stood).

Two of the craters had overlapped into a single large crater, almost 200m across, and the remnants of the walls between them was only visible from spurs jutting into the crater on opposite sides, the fused rock having been more resistant to erosion.

Walking through the middle the kids pointed out a “dead finish” bush, so hardy that if it dies then everything else will be dead or finished too. The two adjacent craters were smaller, one quite dry and devoid of plant life, the other quite the opposite. The last crater apparently retains water well offering an oasis for a small stand of trees that occupy the circumference of the base. The base, now dry, was covered in a thick mat of grasses, and a patio of cracked dried mud. When full it must offer a refuge for many birds and animals.

With little else to do here it was a good opportunity for Amanda to cook some muffins on the Weber and the kids to catch up on their homework, while I attended to some much needed maintenance on the trailer.

The sun set and we sat back to enjoy the spectacularly clear night sky show, with satellites passing far above us in all directions, the band of the milky way stretching across the sky, and a million stars twinkling brightly at us from across the universe.

 

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Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (Ayers Rock & The Olgas)

Speeding towards Uluru National Park the next morning we past the “Grismacks” heading in the opposite direction, the last time we will see them on this trip as we head in different directions.

Uluru, also know as Ayers Rock, is a massive monolith (single rock) made of sandstone, that erupts from the flat surrounding landscape, famous for its changing colours as the sun sets in the evenings. It is over 400km from Alice Springs and many people, including a couple in our car, mistake their first glimpse of Mt Connor for Uluru. They are actually very different, Mt Connor having a flat top and precipitous walls surrounding it, whilst Uluru is much more rounded in appearance.

We had decided to try and climb Uluru and given that it had been windy and closed for climbing in recent days, had crossed all fingers and toes, hoping for a calm day. With the wind definitely increasing as we arrived we filled up our water and headed through the gate. The first section is the steepest as you follow the chains up the side of the monolith. Within 100m Xavier made a sensible decision, given his fear of heights, and decided not to proceed. Shortly after, Hannah muttered something and turned around too. Down to three of us left, Amanda, Oscar (with his visiting school toy, Wilma wombat) and myself we trudged up the calf-punishing rock. We even passed one clown walking in thongs, who lost one over the edge when he finally turned around.

Oscar was in fine form and paced onward and upward. Amanda fell back. At the top of the chain an interrupted white line guides you across the undulating top of the rock and after a few short climbs Oscar and I celebrated at the peak with a high five, then photo opportunities with Wilma. We waited for Amanda, waited some more, then with an increasing wind threatening to make the descent interesting we decided to return.

Whilst it might be somewhat controversial to climb the rock, the ceremonial sacred sites are actually around the base of the rock, and the local Anangu people’s main concern is that people don’t harm themselves on the rock (over 35 people have died trying to climb it). Having enjoyed walking the 10km walk around the base previously I justified the climb based on the fact I was not disrespecting ceremonial sacred sites.

Watching the sunset on the rock with the kids proved a little disappointing as cloud cover restricted sunlight hitting the rock.

Next day I was struck with illness so the others headed off to Kaja Tjuta (The Olgas), and the highlight of their trip proved to be the camel farm that they dropped into for a photograph session with Wilma the Wombat. After generously facilitating the photos the girl at the farm let them prepare saddles for the sunset ride, and even gave them all a quick free ride around the yard on the camels. Two hours were spent at the camel farm and only 30 minutes at the Olgas!

That evening our plans changed dramatically and instead of heading south towards Coober Pedy again we chose to back-track north, to take the Plenty Highway to enter Queensland rather than the more arduous plan across a number of desert tracks to Dalhousie, Birdsville, all of which will have to wait for next time.

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