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Published: October 16th 2006
The Atherton Tablelands lie behind Cairns and are home to numerous lakes and waterfalls, as well as some unique animal and plant life. Being highlands, they are also free of some of the coastal heat and humidity. I had intended visiting them anyway, but the news that all the scuba courses out of Cairns were booked solid for 5 days meant that I headed away from the coast rather sooner than expected. My hire car was from a local company that had shown unusually acute business acumen by offering to undercut all the offers I'd been give before I visited them.
First place out of Cairns was Kuranda, originally a hippie-ish enclave but now as awash with tourist tat (first sighting of a kangaroo scrotum souvenir) and expensive cafes as anywhere else you care to mention. I popped in to the Butterfly Sanctuary where various local species fluttered about, some taking the opportunity to alight on people's heads, others taking the opportunity to alight on the ground and risk death by misplaced tourist foot. Of particular interest were the green Cairns Birdwing (Australia's largest) and the electric blue Ulysses butterflies. The latter proved highly difficult to capture on camera, as
they rarely landed (with a maximum lifespan of 4 weeks, it's perhaps understandable why they're only occasionally stationary) and when they did, they folded up their wings (whose bright colour is a liability if predators are nearby). There was also an enormous Hercules moth, as well as numerous pretty but smaller butterflies.
A quick visit to Barron Falls (which are apparently frightening in the Wet season but were nothing special now) was followed by a zip through Atherton (the largest town in the region) and onward to Yungaburra. There I saw the Curtain Fig Tree. This type of fig tree is parasitic - a bird or some other creature will drop a fig seed into the crown of the host, and the seed will then germinate. When it considers that conditions are right, it will grow tendrils all the way to the ground, from where it will obtain an increasing flow of nutrients and will eventually "strangle" the host. This may cause the fig to fall over (as it no longer has any support), and the luckless tree it falls on to may then become its next victim. This is what had happened at the Curtain Fig Tree, with
the tendrils of the fallen fig draping to the ground.
I'd read positive reports about a hostel in Yungaburra called "On The Wallaby" so, as the afternoon was moving on, I decided that that would be where I'd spend the night. It turned out to be so much fun that I stayed for 3. The hostel was as clean and bright as any I've stayed in, with oodles of character generated by the staff (in particular Matt the guide and Dennis), the dog Bronson that always wanted his tummy rubbed, the decor (random wallaby and platypus-related items everywhere), and the other guests.
There was a free platypus-spotting session at dusk that I attended, at the clearly labelled Platypus Viewing Platform just outside of town. Platypuses are strange creatures indeed, being members of the monotreme subclass of mammals (the echidna is the only other well-known member of this subclass). Monotremes have various mammalian characteristics such as being warm-blooded and producing milk for their young, but also reptilian ones such as their urinary, defecatory, and reproductive systems all opening into a single duct. Male platypuses have poisonous ankle spurs, making them unique amongst mammals, and the platypus "beak" is simply
a sensory organ rather than a mouth.
Unfortunately no platypuses were seen but several other platypus viewers were. We returned to the hostel via a trail beside Peterson Creek, where we struck lucky. In the gloaming of early evening, and with the muddy creek waters as a backdrop, could be seen several dark shapes darting around. Frankly they could have been anything - they certainly resembled pictures of platypuses that I'd seen, but any detail of their appearance was impossible to discern in the half-light. Matt mentioned that mornings were actually the best time to see them in action, so I felt quite privileged that they'd put in an appearance for us.
After the evening barbecue, 6 of us went night canoeing with Matt on Lake Tinaroo, the largest man-made lake in Queensland. Apart from the fun of canoeing by night, one of the objectives was to engage in some "spotlighting", i.e. scanning the forest bordering the lake to hopefully find some wildlife. I was paired with an Egyptian girl whose day job was as a diving instructor in Cairo. She recommended a diving firm in Port Douglas for my PADI Open Water course - though of course
I'd paid for one in Cairns just that morning.
From a wildlife point of view the trip was as unsuccessful as it could possibly have been, as we saw a grand total of zero creatures. However it was magical canoeing on the flat, windless lake with the stars and full moon illuminating the scene, and the only sound the inexpert splashing of canoe blades in the still water. As a bonus, we saw a meteorite, streaking briefly across the sky before disappearing in a fiery burst of sparks.
Matt also told us an interesting story about the lake (which is the reservoir for a dam). When it was planned back in the '50s, the town of Kulara was situated in the intended lake's area. The residents were informed that, once the dam went operational, they would have about 12 years before their town was threatened by water, so they could make a leisurely departure from their homes. As it happened, a slight miscalculation meant that their houses were underwater within weeks.
Many years later, during a drought, the town of Kulara rose from the depths, looking exactly as it had back in the '50s. Old-timers from Kulara
and Yungaburra, who had enjoyed a rivalry when both towns were above water, arranged a cricket match on the now-dry Kulara cricket pitch. Starting at lunch on day 1 of the match, it rained - for 3 months. Kulara was left under 30m of water as the reservoir filled to capacity. The town hasn't reappeared since, though divers have been down and located the pub - apparently a rope leads from the front door of the pub to a bottle bobbing on the surface of the lake, so anyone (with scuba) can pop in to the local.
Post-canoeing, the evening was spent in the hostel with a Dutch guy, a German guy, and a Norwegian girl called Lisa (in keeping with my usual convention, she has been named because she will appear again). One topic of conversation that came up, that revealed (yet again) how little I know of our European neighbours, was that the English are viewed as one of the ugliest races in the continent, with wonky teeth and pasty white skin being just two of our failings in the field of pulchritude. It was Lisa who brought this up, and it would have been very easy
for me to return fire by asking what could be so great about a country where the women are fair-haired, light-eyed, and speak English with a cute accent - on reflection, maybe that argument needs some work. I spent the rest of the evening with my mouth shut, surreptitiously rubbing some colour into my cheeks.
Due to an ear-related problem, I thought that sunrise was at 6:30AM instead of 5:30AM, an error that was immediately obvious to me when I opened the curtains at 6AM and was nearly blinded. I was down by the creek by 6:30AM but, alas, the platypuses had clearly finished their morning swim and were back in their burrows. The fact that it was rather cold and there had been a heavy dew may have had something to do with it.
Lisa had expressed an interest in taking some photos of the region's lakes and waterfalls so, as I had transport and was intending doing the same thing, I was lucky enough to acquire a travelling companion for the next couple of days, with by no means the least welcome side-effect of this being I got a break from "Remix Heaven 2006". In all
seriousness, it does make an enormous difference having someone else around to share experiences with, especially if the area being explored is one as rich in novelty as the Atherton Tablelands - I almost forgave her the slights against English looks.
After a quick trip to the Curtain Fig Tree, we returned to Lake Tinaroo for a walk and then a lakeside drive that took in Lake Euramoo ("spooky", according to the RG, but actually quite welcoming in warm sunshine and with birds tweeting), Mobo Crater (a small water-filled depression), and the Cathedral Fig Tree (so-called because of the buttressing evident at the base). At the latter we saw many brush turkeys (sporting the colours of the Belgian flag) and some musky rat-kangaroos that bore more than a passing resemblance to quokkas.
I was quite distressed to learn that Morten Harket is viewed as cheesy in Norway, though I was surprised to hear that British comedy series are popular there.
Next up was a 6km walk around Lake Barrine, which produced a first snake sighting of the trip for me - a yellow-bellied black snake. Lisa identified it, as she had seen one in a house in
Sydney when it accosted a friend emerging from the toilet. I was really excited by this, as the day had not disappointed from a wildlife point of view. Further sightings of brush turkeys and musky rat-kangaroos occurred, so it was a highly successful jaunt.
Whilst we were out, a group of 28 American students on a field trip had descended on the hostel (at a stroke increasing the number of Americans I'd seen in Australia tenfold), so the camping area in the back garden resembled a refugee exodus, and the word "like" was heard several million times during the evening.
Day 2 saw me arising at 5:15AM, with sunrise firmly in the future. I was rewarded with 6 or 7 platypus sightings - no decent photos but the memories will stay in my brain.
There were still plenty of lakes and waterfalls to investigate so Lisa and I joined forces again to continue our tour of them. The countryside in the area was very English in parts - green fields, rolling hills, and a sprinkling of Friesian cows. There were too many photo opportunities to take full advantage of.
A 4km walk around Lake Eacham kicked
off the proceedings, immediately producing a sighting of a thin, black, fast-moving snake that may have been a (highly poisonous) brown (don't ask ...) snake. We then found some sawshelled turtles - the information board said that they breathe through their bums, but subsequent info from a biologist and one of the park rangers contradicted this.
The rest of the day was a waterfallfest, taking in Millaa Millaa Falls, Zillie Falls (nice rainbow effect), and Ellinjaa Falls. A couple of "jaffles" (toasted sandwiches containing mince and veg) were purchased for lunch and eaten at Mungalli Falls. There was some colourful plant life next to the upper and lower sections of Mungalli Falls that had attracted some equally colourful butterflies.
Unfortunately the next two waterfalls on the list - Nandroya and Tchupala - proved impossible to find, a fate that also befell a Dutch/German group from the hostel. With the fuel warning light putting in an unwelcome appearance, it seemed a good time to head for home anyway.
At dinner we were joined by a friendly Aussie guy, who turned out to be the marine biologist at Townsville Aquarium, and his 2 Norwegian friends - this meant that
the only 3 Norwegians I can recall meeting in my life were encountered in 2 separate groups in a town in the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland with a population of about 1,500. Lisa was also more than a little surprised, as she'd only met 1 other Norwegian in Australia. A wide-ranging conversation ensued that took in Norwegian cuisine, Czech hookers, and garden gnomes, plus many impressive photos of Norwegian landscapes that may well persuade me to include the country in my travels, before it was time for bed.
The following day saw me back in solo mode, as Lisa was heading back to Cairns and I needed to make my way to Undara. I stopped at Mt Hypipamee National Park to see The Crater (a large green crater-like thing) and Dinner Falls. This was supposed to be prime cassowary country, as evidenced by the numerous warning signs about them. Cassowaries are emu-like birds but are endangered. Though I think the last recorded incident of a human dying at the claws of a cassowary was in the 1920s, they have a jumping attack where they attempt to disembowel their adversary with their sharp talons. I was quite disappointed not to
catch a glimpse of one.
The next town on the route was Ravenshoe, where I paid visits to Little Millstream Falls and Millstream Falls, the latter the widest waterfall in Queensland.
On my way back from Undara the next day (I've blogged Undara separately), I stopped near Ravenshoe on a stretch of road with signs warning that it was a tree kangaroo crossing zone, in the hope of spotting one of these shy creatures. Finding a path leading back into the forest, I wandered along it scanning the branches for arboreal marsupials. One area of the path was covered in kangaroo-like droppings, so I focused my search on the nearby trees and was first rewarded with the sight of a tree kangaroo shinning rapidly down a trunk before disappearing into the undergrowth. Seconds later I found myself locking eyes with a curious furry face in another nearby tree. The long tail and short feet were a giveaway, but I only managed a couple of photos before it too scrambled down the trunk and bounced away. Another animal to add to the list of Australian cuties.
Apart from the tree kangaroo sighting, the only other point of interest
of my return drive to Cairns was passing through Gordonvale, where cane toads first entered the wild in Australia. Cane toads are one of the best examples of introduced species wreaking havoc on the Australian environment. Imported from South America in the 1930s with a brief to eradicate the greyback beetle that was devastating sugar cane crops, the toads proved signally incapable of the task they were meant to accomplish, instead spreading across the country eating anything they liked and evading potential predators by being poisonous to all native fauna. Their progress across the country is continuing even now, with the latest eradication efforts focusing on genetic engineering to cause only female cane toads to be born. It's something of a sport to run over them if they're encountered on the road, and there are organisations in Queensland and NT whose members spend several hours at the weekend trapping/killing the toads.
After seeing some excellent landscapes and wildlife in the Atherton Tablelands, Cairns was going to provide a glimpse of life in an entirely different domain - beneath the waves.
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