Monday, 29 June 2009

Signs and Failed Dreams

The Australian road system has its own unique road signs (at least unique to someone from Europe). Amongst our favourites so far are:

Road Train sign 2009_0625australia0004 Car and Cow sign Crocodile

Over the past few days we have passed through a number of towns which represent failed dreams dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

On the way from Undara to Normanton, we went through the very pretty town of Croydon whose population has fallen from 33,000 to under 300 over the past 100 years. Croydon discovered gold in the mid 1800s and hence its population soared. Normanton (about 150 kms north) was the nearest port and so it was decided to divert the planned railway from Normanton to the mining area of Cloncurry (some considerable distance south) to go towards the gold fields at Croydon. However by the time it was built and operational, the gold had run out and the miners had moved on. Croydon then started its slow decline into what one sees today. Its heritage however is a number of lovely old buildings, some restored as museums and a few still in use.

Hotel Croydon

This is the only one of the original 33 hotels still remaining in the town.

Court House

Inside court house

The Court House with the accused in the dock


The Town Hall

Normanton, the port just up the road (some 150 kms) also shows its failed history.  The original Department Store for the whole area still stands (with an internal floor space of about 1 acre)

Burns Philp Store Normanton

The town streets are some of the widest we have ever seen and

Main Street Normanton

there are a number of grand buildings (below are the Council Offices)

Shire Offices Normanton

plus the infamous Purple Pub and a typical outback hotel

Albion Hotel Normanton Purple Pub Normanton

and a life sized replica of the largest crocodile ever shot in the county near

Krys the Crocodile Nana Pat being eaten by crocodile

to the town in 1957 – a mere 8.63m long (28.4 ft).

The area we are now in is called “The Gulf of Carpentaria”  - it has a population of 2500 spread over and area of 65,000 square miles  - in comparative terms it means all of the people living in St Michaels Mead (Bishops Stortford) spread over an area about the size of the bottom half of England. The main attraction for tourists is fishing for Barramundi (a large fish known for its dislike of being caught on a line), Near to Normanton is

Pat seeking crocodiles at Kuramba point beach Fossil Shells in Sandstone at Kuramba

Karumba where we went to try the food and also to see the beach – the sandstone which makes up much of the beach is littered with fossil shells within the sandstone. The sea looked very attractive on such a hot day (32C in the shade) but crocodiles have been known to swim along the beach so paddling to keep cool was not a good idea.

One of the characteristics of such an isolated area is that shops can suddenly be out of things – including diesel at the local garages. Although we have managed to fill up, the dirt road across the top of the area is said to be in a worse condition than normal because of the very heavy wet season they have had here and one of the fuel stops has closed (gas stations are about 200 miles apart on this route) so we have decided to change our route slightly and go south to Cloncurry and Mount Isa and then head west again to the Red Centre and up north to Kakadu (a minor diversion of 300 miles).


Saturday, 27 June 2009

Large scale farming and Fresh Water Crocodiles

Cobbold Gorge is situated in part of the Robin Hood Ranch. The scale of things in Australia is indicated by some statistics related to this “not very large” ranch. It is about the size of Hertfordshire (yes about the size of the whole County! at 500 square miles or 330,000 acres or 1,284 sq km), contains three landing strips for planes, four homestead complexes across the farm, 384 kms of cattle fencing, five cattle yards, 65 kms of public roads and 223 km of internal roads and last year had 1200 mm of

Brahman Cow

rain. The farm runs 12,000 head of Brahman cattle which although looking rather scrawny, are said to do well in this inhospitable climate.

To get here, we drove westwards from Undara along the Savannah Highway and turned south when we got to a small town called Georgetown. 85kms south (50 miles) along increasingly bumpy dirt track long dirt road

roads (which we drove in 4WD) lies the Cobbold Gorge campsite. Our powered site (this means we can plug the van into mains power and run the aircon, make toast etc) also had its own ensuite toilet and shower – we had gone upmarket because the straightforward power only ones were all taken. The gorge and homestead can only be visited on an organised tour – our guide was one of the most knowledgeable people we have met so far and apart from knowing numerous facts about the farm and the gorge, was also very knowledgeable on flora and fauna and also the uses the local aboriginals had made of plants when they lived in the area.

Grave of John Corbett

We also were introduced to the knowledge of the local aboriginal tribes and also to the difficult relationship which Australia has had with the original inhabitants of the continent.

This grave is on the Robin Hood Ranch property and is alongside the old track main road which ran through the property to the North. It marks the grave of a local who died in the early 1870s and the tombstone reads:

Scared to the memory of John Corbett who’s body is interred here and here was murdered by the blacks on 31st May in the 32nd year of his age….. Apparently he was travelling alone, North along the road, carrying gold which he had prospected when he was murdered by a group of “blacks” – they killed him for being on their land and left the gold.

Further on our walk we were introduced to numerous plants and their

Gidji Gidje Berry

native uses. The fruit of the “Gidji Gidji” tree was used to create a miscarriage / contraceptive by Aboriginal Women. The fruit of this plant

Cricket  Ball Tree

(now known as the Cricket Ball or Golf Ball Tree) could be ground up to make “damper” (a sort of bread) which they did in the mortar below which

Aboriginal Mortar

is carved into the sandstone. Another notch was used for sharpening spears and blades

Aboriginal Knife Sharpener

The leaf of the Sandpaper Fig Tree was used for sanding down

Sandpaper Fig Tree

Boomerangs – it really was very rough. The bark from the Paperbark

Paper Bark Tree

tree was used to make nets, bags or rope. Other plants were used for medicines, poisons etc etc. Their knowledge of the local flora and fauna is astonishing and their treatment by the incoming settlers seems to have been deplorable. The area is said to have been used for initiation ceremonies by the local aboriginal tribe, hence the presence of some wall

Aboriginal Hand Paintings

painting – here hand prints made by dipping a hand in fresh ochre which also had the juice from spine flax grass in it as a bonding agent. We also saw (demonstrated with a drop of spit) a grass seed which bores itself into the ground as soon as it is touched by water.

The Gorge itself is a picturesque narrowing gorge which one navigates by

Cobbalds Gorge 1

Cobbold Gorge 3

a very thin boat since the gorge narrows to two metres width. It is inhabited by numerous species of fish and some rather fat looking Freshwater

Crocodile Freshwater 1

Crocodile Freshwater 4

Crocodiles which are said not to be dangerous to humans unless you go near them! A good trip with a very knowledgeable guide.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Road Etiquette and the Undara Lava Tubes

Australia is vast and “nearby” seems to mean anything within a day’s driving. Undara is nearby to Cairns (“handy for a day trip” they say") and so 4 hours driving later we arrive at Undara for two nights. The road starts off

Long macadam road

well paved and gradually downgrades the further away from we get from the east coast. The most common type of road out in the bush (apart from dirt tracks) is the long straight road with a single strip of tarmac running down the middle and dirt on either side. Protocol says that when two vehicles are approaching each other, they both move left thus having one

Passing Car

wheel on the dirt side and one or the tarmac. Whilst this creates clouds of dust, it does mean that both can pass. The one exception to this rule is that if you see something bigger coming towards you, then you get off the road as far as you can to let them go through. The most common vehicles in this category are the famous “Road Trains” – lorries pulling up to 4 or 5 trailers. They do not stop for anyone and it is “get out of the way or be squashed” – dead bulls, cows, wild horses, kangaroos by the side of the road are evidence that they do not stop. So far we have met about 6 road trains and seen a lot of road kill.

The Undara Lava Tubes

Undara is a camping resort situated in the middle of a National Park. The Undara volcano erupted around 170,000 years ago with a massive lava flow (estimated at 23 cubic kms of lava). This lava flowed westwards a distance of some 160 kms (due to the topography) and as it did so, it created “lava tubes” which are the reason people come here.

The resultant topography is that of a large plain with the occasional volcano showing its head above the surface. Bushfires are common

Bush with volcano

across the plain and the trees in the area have developed survival mechanisms to cope with bush fires, namely that the leaves are very high up the trunk

Tree surviving fire

and the bark is shaped such that flames find it hard to climb up the tree

Cooktown Iron Bark Tree

trunk. When the flames get to the top of the inside of the diamond, they find they have run out of oxygen and cannot burn up over the diamond wall. Also when it rains and the rain runs down the trunk, water gets trapped at the bottom of the diamond and slowly gets absorbed into the ground rather than running off at a fast rate.

Undara is an example of a “Shield Volcano” whose eruption style was described as more akin to a milk pan bubbling over than the traditional style of volcano known as a “Scoria” which erupts in the traditional “Pompeii” style. There are both type of volcanoes in the area and the landscape is dotted with the remnants of both.

Scoria type volcsno

a Scoria type of volcano

Undara - shield volcano

a number of the Shield type of volcano (Undara itself is the unassuming mound just to the right of the middle of this photograph, not the bigger one on the right).

In order to see the lava tubes, you have to be taken on a guided tour. We visited three sections of the tubes. A typical tube will be about 50 metres high and

Lava Tube 1

almost just as broad. Over the past 170,000 years they have filled up with silt from rain etc and so are now only half that height inside – but still very

Lava Tube 2

impressive. As the lava flowed away from the volcano, the outside of the flow cooled and solidified creating a tube made of lava. When the eruption

Lava Tube 3

stopped, the tubes emptied (because they were pointing downhill) leaving the tubes. It is assumed that there still are hundreds of kilometres of undiscovered tubes. Over geological time, sections of the ceiling collapsed creating the entrances you can see in these photographs. To get into the tubes, you climb down over rocks (well done Pat!).

Lovers end

The whole process has created some of the most amazing colours in the rocks and above is a cheesy photograph taken at the end of a tube (do not know who the people are in the photo, they just got in the way).

Bones etc found in lava tube

Evidence of Aboriginal use of the caves has been found from numerous Kangaroo bones, stone fragments shaped into knife blades for scraping and types of fruit. Some of the caves (those with an entrance and a separate exit) are said by local elders to have a special religious interest.

After two nights at Undara, we drove further west to Cobbold Gorge – a natural phenomena out in the wild bush and tackled our first serious dirt roads.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

4WD Training and keeping in touch

Keeping in touch

In 1970 when we were students, we went off to the Middle East for 10 weeks. Our luggage consisted of a tent and a small rucksack holding enough clothes for “one on, one off”, we had one film camera, a map of the Middle East showing the major countries roads and cities, one book each for the whole holiday (Lord of the Rings and Gone with the Wind), our shoes were those we had on, we probably had only two medicines with us and money was dealt with via AMEX Travellers Cheques. If anyone wanted to contact us , they could write to one of four Poste Restante addresses (Istanbul, Teheran, Baghdad, and Nicosia).

Now for about the same period in time we have just under 60 kgms of luggage; two digital cameras and a camcorder; a satnav, GPS and maps ranging from country to detailed areas; three books each plus two books of crosswords and a large Sudoko; walking boots, shoes and sandals; enough medicines to stock a small pharmacy (including a snake bite kit supplied in the van first aid kit); five credit cards and three cash cards; and for really keeping in touch, three mobile phones on different networks (two UK based and one Oz); and of course a wifi equipped laptop for email etc. The fact that we can phone or be phoned from anywhere in the world instantly means that we have gone from never being contactable to “why are they not answering their phone? Are they alright?” To ensure that we remain alright, we also have an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Rescue Beacon) – this is for use only in a dire life threatening situation and comes with the van. It is about the size of a thick paperback and when set off, sends out a signal via a satellite which eventually results in a helicopter arriving at your location equipped to save life.

Looking at the size of some of the packs and luggage carried by backpackers in the area, they too have suffered from luggage expansion. The word “essential” has been redefined for all classes of travellers as has the minimum standard of accommodation that is acceptable.

4WD Training

We have rented a 4WD camper van so that we can go off road and see some of the more remote parts of Australia. Because neither of us have driven a 4WD in serious conditions  before, I arranged for Rob Burrell, who trains 4WD drivers, to give us some practical training.

During the day we learnt the theory of how a 4WD works, and then about driving on dirt track roads, doing emergency stops safely if you encountered a suicidal animal, how to negotiate a river crossing:

First River Crossing

Our first river crossing

Pat driving across the river (with some style)

Climbing a Hill

how to drive up hills (and reverse down them if you get stuck) and also how to drive on sand and get bogged down in it.

Stuck in sand 1

The latter exercise was supposed to be getting bogged down in sand and then easily getting out of it – this did not go quite to plan however and our “rescue vehicle” also got bogged down and it took some two hours for us both to get free.

Stuck in sand 2

So whilst we are now far happier about 4WD, rivers and hills etc, we have both taken a vow to never drive on sand – we could not cope with the stress of getting out! A useful day, well delivered and enjoyable,

Monday, 22 June 2009

Our first day in the Camper Van

8.30 am sees us at the Apollo Camper Van depot ready to collect our home for the next 12 weeks. For reasons which I do not totally understand, the price we were expected to pay was $600 less than that in their latest email to us – so we promised to spend the cash back on beer!

The van was still being cleaned when we arrived so it was not until around

Van being cleaned

noon that we were able to set off. Because we were going to be living in it for the next three month, the fitted new rear tyres, gave us extra sheets, towels and other things. The van has already done about 140,000 kms and is beginning to show its age and of course the ones used in the adverts are all shiny brand new but it seems roadworthy enough.

On the way to our first camp site in Kundara (25 kms north west of Cairns), we stocked up at a supermarket and so when we arrived at the camp site, the inside of the van seemed rather full with travel bags and food. Getting enough things stored so we could actually sleep in it that night was a challenge but the van comes with a number of storage compartments on the outside (ok for tins etc but not perishables because they might get wet when we cross rivers) and a variety of storage spaces inside and also in the drivers compartment..

We have rapidly learnt that you have to be very organised and meticulous at putting things away and we have given ourselves about a week to get ourselves totally sorted out. Everything has to have a place and it has to go back there as soon as you have stopped using it - there is just not enough space to be untidy.

Upon arrival at a camp site, the routine is to:

  1. plug the van into the nearest power socket so that you have main power inside the van to run the fridge, aircon and any electrical appliances;
  2. raise the roof so that you can stand up inside
  3. open the fly screens to let some light in
  4. check nothing has broken in any of the cupboards or come unpacked
  5. have a cup of tea

The van is actually larger inside than we had imagined  with a large double bed, a single bed / settee, and fridge / freezer. Although it is equipped for camping out in the wild (something we have yet to do) with an external gas cooker, 40 litres of fresh water, outside solar heated shower, awning, and fold out table and chairs, it is assumed that some of your time will be spent at camp sites on a powered pitch so there is also an electric toaster and kettle. From a couple of nights experience, it seems that many campers use the cooking facilities at camp sites rather than their own in their caravans / camper vans / tents.

If you are staying at an unpowered site or out in the wild, then a separate battery to the engine battery will keep the fridge and lights running for about two days before it goes flat (unless you have been driving to recharge it).

One of the disadvantages of a van this small is that it does not have its own toilet and so if you want to go in the middle of the night, you have to go out to those in the camp (or the side of the road!).

Our first nights sleep was reasonable with only three trips outside (there seems to be some rule that when you should not do something, you actually do it more often) but these visits did give us the opportunity to see the stars – these were amazing, partly because we are in the southern hemisphere and therefore they are different to those in Europe but also because there is little light pollution.

We also saw our first Australia wildlife at close quarters, a wallaby, some

Turkey Buzzard

wild turkeys and a very large spider which seemed to want to jump up our legs (we are mindful however of the advice of Bill Bryson and therefore did not give it the chance).

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Pat’s Day out in Cairns

Whilst Paul was out diving, I had my day planned . After a leisurely breakfast at the Coffee Club I made my way to Cairns Museum housed in the old School of Art, a very attractive building. It’s quite

Cairns Museum

small but fascinating, giving an honest account of the history of Cairns from its origins at the time of the Gold rush in the 1870s to the present time. One of the sections was on schooling and I was amused to read an account of the requirements of a teacher in 1879 and 1915:

Rules for Teachers 1879

  1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, and clean chimneys before beginning work.
  2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.
  3. Make your pens carefully; you whittle nibs to the individual taste of the children.
  4. Men teachers may take one evening a week for courting purposes or two evenings to attend church regularly.
  5. After ten hours in school, you may spend the remaining time reading the bible or other good books.
  6. Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
  7. Every teacher should lay aside, from each pay, a goodly sum for his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.
  8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool and public halls or gets shaved in a barber’s shop,will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.

Rule for Women Teachers 1915

  1. You will not marry during the term of contract.
  2. You are not to keep the company of men.
  3. You must be home between the hours of 8 pm and 6 am unless attending a school function.
  4. You may not loiter down town in ice cream parlours.
  5. You may not travel beyond the city limits without the permission of the chairman of the board.
  6. You may not ride in a carriage or automobile with any man unless he is your father or brother.
  7. You may not smoke cigarettes
  8. You may not dress in bright colours.
  9. You may not under any circumstance dye your hair.
  10. You must wear at least two petticoats and your dresses must not be shorter than two inches above the ankle.
  11. To keep the school room clean, you must sweep the floor at least once daily, scrub the floor with hot soapy water at least once per week, clean the blackboard once a day and start the fire at 7 am so that the room is warm when the children arrive.

Surprisingly schoolchildren were still using slates in Queensland schools until the 1960s.

There were exhibits on the lives and work of the early inhabitants of Cairns, with examples of the machinery used.

The Aborigine inhabitants were also represented and some insight was gained into their way of life and concerns.

After a quick lunch of fruit I positioned myself outside the hotel to await the “City Sights” bus which duly arrived at the appointed time. We had discovered the existence of this tour from picking up a leaflet at the Tourist Office. It sounded interesting so we phoned the number on the leaflet and booked a place using a credit card. In return we were told the time to expect the bus to arrive at my particular hotel. The bus had a few more people to pick up before the tour proper commenced and we were about twenty in total. David, the driver/tour guide introduced himself to each person as they joined the tour, ascertained their nationality and name and introduced them to the rest of the group as they boarded. He was very friendly, extremely enthusiastic, incredibly knowledgeable and repeatedly went the extra mile to give us an interesting and entertaining afternoon. He had brought along plenty of visual aids in the form of photographs, newspaper cuttings, examples of seed pods and even a cane toad in a glass jar!

The tour took in many interesting places such as St Monica’s Cathedral – a Catholic church which had some stunningly beautiful modern stained glass windows (if you click on the hyperlink above it will show you the whole set)

Stained Glass 1

Stained Glass 2

which portrayed the Creation Story,

Flying Doctor 1

Flying Doctor 2

the Flying Doctor Centre where we had a presentation and video about the founding and work of the RFDS. Rather anachronistically we were given a “Devonshire” cream tea at a little cafe in Edge Hill. Then we were off to the Botanical Gardens where David’s expert knowledge came into its own.

Sausage Tree

a “sausage” tree


Orchids of course

Phillipine Vine

a vine from the Philippine's one of only three plants in the world in this colour

We saw many amazing plant specimens and heard about the healing or poisonous properties of many of them.

Next stop was an Opal Mine where we were told about how opals are formed, the different kinds that exist and were given the opportunity to buy jewellery which ranged from a few dollars to several thousand.

After a photo opportunity at a look-out point where we could see all of Cairns and the sea beyond we made for Palm Cove, a beautiful spot

Palm Cove

where we were able to walk on the beach and jetty before the sun came down and we enjoyed the picturesque sunset before setting off back to Cairns.

Pat with Double Island in the background

Pat with “Double Island” (named so by Captain Cook because another small island is behind this one) in the background which now houses an exclusive hotel used by people like Jennifer Anniston when she wants to get away from the world.

A most enjoyable afternoon lasting from 12.45pm to 6.45pm at a cost of 65 dollars (£32).Apart from visiting the above mentioned places David gave us a running commentary of everything of interest that we passed. I felt particularly fortunate to have a kookaburra pointed out along with wallabies, fruit bats and many other examples of local flora and fauna. David had interesting stories to tell about most of what we saw.

One final picture taken during the afternoon:

Warning Crocodiles

This is obviously giving us a warning of what is to come - “Crocodiles inhabit this area, attacks may cause injury or death” !!!