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Published: November 29th 2015
The swimming hole at Wheel of Fire Falls
Having returned to Hervey Bay after spending three glorious days on Fraser Island, Linda and I were dismayed to realize that we were by now already three-quarters of the way through our two-month road-trip - leaving us with just two more weeks of adventure on the open road before our rental campervan was due back at the Wicked Campers depot in Cairns. It seems the longer the holiday, the more dreadful the thought of that holiday coming to an end...
But since our trip hadn't yet reached it's conclusion, we packed early (Thursday 19th
November) and followed the main road west out of Hervey Bay until we eventually re-joined the Bruce Highway; only to then turn off less than an hour later and take the Isis Highway straight into Bundaberg, where after stocking up on groceries we had lunch in the shade of a park overlooking the wide Burnett River.
From Bundaberg we headed north (back towards the coast) until we eventually came to the twin towns of Agnes Water and Seventeen Seventy, which I had long wanted to visit but had been prevented from doing so seven years earlier when my car broke down before I was able
Bridge over the Burdekin River in Bundaberg
to make it that far! Named for the year in which Captain Cook made his first landfall in Queensland at that very spot, Seventeen Seventy (also referred to as Town of 1770) occupies a scenic location overlooking the broad expanse of Round Hill Creek, separated from the sea by the pointed headland of Bustard Head.
Meanwhile just a few kilometres back down the road, Agnes Water lays claim to having the northern-most surf beach in Queensland (and therefore the entire East Coast) as from this point all the way up to the tip of Cape York Peninsula the massive multi-coloured ribbon of the Great Barrier Reef parallels the coast, preventing any Pacific Ocean swells from making it to the shoreline and ensuring relatively sheltered waters along it's entire length.
Having intended to stay at the cheap council-run Workman's Beach campground on the outskirts of Agnes Water, we were shocked to find that all 38 campsites were already occupied when we turned up at 5pm in the afternoon; leaving us with little choice but to fork out $40 for a powered site at the Agnes Water Beach Caravan Park instead... though at least this left us just a short
Agnes Water's Main Beach
stroll from Agnes Water's main beach, allowing me to partake in a relaxed bodysurfing session both on the Thursday evening and again on the Friday morning.
This was only a preview of things to come, however, as Linda and I then took our first ever surfing lesson at nearby Springs Beach - which saw a random assortment of backpackers (including a humourless German guy we had previously met on our Noosa Everglades tour) taking to the water and testing themselves against the one-metre south-easterly swell. And thus I discovered that thirty-odd years of bodysurfing experience counts for little when it comes to actually having to stand up on a moving surfboard, as both Linda and I struggled to make any progress with our surfing techniques as we nursed tired arm muscles from the amount of paddling required! They sure make it look a lot easier on those surfing videos...
Having managed to stand up for just the briefest of moments (and with no real confidence or style whatsoever!) we eventually had to admit defeat when we noticed everyone else in the group standing up on the beach waiting for us - at least what we lacked in skill
Crossing the Fitzroy River in Rockhampton
we tried to make up for with sheer persistence! Nevertheless we had fun, and I would like to point out that we were by no means the only losers who failed to make any discernible progress during the two-hour lesson!
Feeling pretty much buggered after our exertions in the surf, we headed straight to the Workman's Beach campground (operated by the local council, and costing just $14 per night for the two of us) for a quick swim to cool off, before spending the entire afternoon sitting around at the campground doing virtually nothing... which in the thirty degree-plus heat felt pretty damn satisfying!
Saturday saw us leaving Agnes Water and making our way back to the Bruce Highway, which we then followed for the best part of two hours until we reached the self-proclaimed 'Beef capital of Australia', Rockhampton. With less than pleasant memories of sitting around for two days whilst waiting for my car to be fixed - which it never was - the last time I was in Rockhampton seven years ago, we lingered in town only long enough to buy groceries and have lunch beside the Fitzroy River, before we left the highway and
Rosslyn Bay on the Capricorn Coast
headed forty kilometres east (paralleling the Tropic of Capricorn as we went) to the so-called Capricorn Coast.
Stopping briefly at the picturesque Rosslyn Bay, we took the short walk to the top of Double Head to take in the impressive views, which stretched all the way from Great Keppel Island to the distant Byfield Ranges. From there it was only a short drive to the largest town on the Capricorn Coast, Yeppoon, where we checked into the Beachside Caravan Park and enjoyed a leisurely swim in the tropical waters - where thanks to the combination of wind and clouds that had descended upon us it was actually warmer in the water than out of it!
Sunday brought our longest driving day since we had left Victoria, as we tackled the 330km stretch from Rockhampton to Mackay - which met the coast only once (and only briefly) as we passed the small town of Clairview. Thankfully though, what would otherwise have been a rather boring drive was rescued by our first koala sighting of the entire trip, after we passed a young family standing by the side of the road gazing up into the trees with cameras in hand
A long-awaited sighting
Koala mother and youngster beside the Bruce Highway
and duly pulled over to investigate!
How on earth they had managed to spot such well-hidden and elusive creatures from a passing car at 100km/h I have no idea - but we were certainly grateful that they had! We had been on the road for seven weeks, had driven almost seven thousand kilometres, and had seemingly passed about seven million 'koala warning' road signs without actually laying eyes on a single one - much to Linda's growing frustration - but all that was forgiven as we gazed up into the tree and found a mother koala with a youngster on her back both staring back down at us!
But there was still another equally-awesome wildlife encounter to come, for after finally reaching Mackay and stopping off to stock up on groceries and enjoy a brief but much needed swim at the artificial lagoon in town, we headed west through the sugar cane-growing heartland of the Pioneer Valley and then inched our way up the steep climb at the head of the valley to the tiny township of Eungella; and from there continued on to the Broken River campground in Eungella National Park - which is reputed to be
Platypus feeding in Broken River, Eungella National Park
one of the best places in Australia (and therefore the world) to spot the elusive platypus.
And sure enough, no sooner had we parked the campervan and taken a short stroll along the riverbank - by which time it was already approaching dusk, which along with dawn is the best time of day to spot these unusual little critters - than we were marvelling at the sight of these furry, elongated, duck-billed marsupials feeding in one of the barely-flowing pools nearby. And I have to say, watching silently as a platypus goes about it's routine of diving for between 30 and 60 seconds (during which time any food that is caught is stored in a pocket inside it's cheek) and then surfacing for 10 - 15 seconds to enjoy whatever tasty morsels it has caught, would have to be one of the most relaxing past-times that I could possibly think of. What's not to like about gazing out over a tranquil pool and watching for the tell-tale bubbles that follow a platypus while it dives for food, or the ever-expanding ripples that fan out from wherever it surfaces? And there's no denying it - the little critters sure are
View of the Pioneer Valley from near the town of Eungella
In fact I found the whole experience so addictive I even set my alarm for 5am the next morning and wandered back over to the platypus viewing platforms (on the opposite riverbank to the campground) to spend another hour or so contentedly spotting not only platypus but also turtles, water dragons and fish-catching birds. Of course Linda was a notable absentee during all of this - but then I guess dawn is just a little too early for some people to be up spotting wildlife!
Later in the morning we went for a loop walk through the rainforest, with Eungella National Park protecting one of the largest remaining areas of intact rainforest in the country, and forming part of the Wet Tropics world heritage area that also includes the Daintree Rainforest up around Cape Tribulation. On our way back up to Eungella township we stopped in to do another short walk to check out the view from the aptly-named Sky Window - which took in the entire Pioneer Valley that we had driven through on our way up from Mackay the previous day.
Eventually we made our way slowly back down the side of the mountain
Picturesque Plunge Pool
Araluen Falls in Finch Hatton Gorge
range to the valley floor, where we took a side road that led to the impressive Finch Hatton Gorge. Loading ourselves up with water, fruit and muesli bars we then tackled another hiking trail through the rainforest, though this one had the distinct advantage of leading us past numerous waterfalls - two of which (Araluen Falls and Wheel of Fire Falls) we were able to swim underneath. The sheer-sided walls of the gorge immediately beneath Araluen Falls provided a perfect, deep freshwater pool in which to soak away any perspiration; and from there we continued up alongside (and across) the creek past numerous other pretty cascades, before arriving at the end of the trail at the plunge pool beneath Wheel of Fire Falls.
Just as we were about to cool off once more, Linda spotted a massive eel (about a metre-and-a-half long and thicker than my arm!) hiding beneath one of the large boulders at the edge of the pool, and from that point on she was visibly torn between desperately wanting to cool off with a swim and being scared shitless of the giant eel! And though I wasn't particularly comfortable sharing my swimming space with such a
Wheel of Fire Falls in Finch Hatton Gorge
large, nasty-looking creature either, I certainly wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to swim in one of the most beautiful locations we had encountered on our entire trip... though I endeavoured to put Linda between myself and the eel at all times!
Probably the funniest part of the whole episode came when a group of folks who had arrived at the falls shortly after us - and subsequently decided not to go in the water after discovering the eel - responded to Linda's enquiry about the creature's whereabouts (as we were paddling slowly across the pool towards the falls) with a nonchalant “we don't know where it's gone, but it's not here any more”... at which point Linda launched into her best impression of an Olympic swimmer chasing a gold medal! Strangely enough, Linda's panic actually made me feel somewhat safer - possibly due to the fact that if the eel had suddenly decided to try meat for lunch, it would surely have been too distracted by Linda's wild thrashing about to bother paying any attention to me! Good times.
Emerging from Finch Hatton Gorge later in the afternoon, we back-tracked just a couple of kilometres down
Swimming hole at Platypus Bush Camp
the road to the Platypus Bush Camp, where a knockabout old Aussie bloke named Wazza has spent the past twenty-five years living a solitary existence in the bush whilst slowly turning his property into a tropical oasis of sorts, in the form of a secluded campground / wilderness lodge. And though we might not have had any electricity, we did had a crystal clear stream (the same one that flows through Finch Hatton Gorge) flowing only metres from our campsite, which then opened out into one of the most beautiful swimming pools I have ever seen - which Wazza himself had dug out of the creek bed in a project that must have taken months, if not years, to complete! It was truly a little slice of paradise, and quite possibly the best twenty dollars we have spent on the trip so far.
After spending a relaxing couple of hours by the swimming pool and then hitting the sack by nine o'clock in the evening - a consequence of having gotten up at five o'clock in the morning - I was straight back down to the creek for my 'morning shower' the next day. Having thoroughly enjoyed our time
Islands and Shadows
Casuarina Beach (and Wedge Island) at low tide
in Eungella National Park, we then headed back out of the Pioneer Valley but turned off before we got to Mackay to take a back-road short-cut that led us back to the coast at Cape Hillsborough - which we had only discovered after a couple of fellow travellers that we had met in Byron Bay (Tom and Tamiko) mentioned that it had been one of their favourite spots on the Queensland coast.
And what an undiscovered gem it turned out to be! Bypassing the national park campground at Smalleys Beach we continued on to the end of the road where the Cape Hillsborough Nature Tourist Park was located right beside a beautiful stretch of sand known as Casuarina Beach, which looks out over a broad, shallow bay bordered by rocky headlands at either end; and with the alluring profiles of the Cumberland Islands floating on the horizon out in the Coral Sea.
After picking out a nice shady campsite not far from the beach, we followed a lazy lunch with a quick dip in the sea - though with the tide being out we had to walk about a hundred metres just to reach the water, and would
Small island just offshore from Wedge Island
probably have had to walk another hundred metres to find water deep enough to actually swim in! Given that the water was also rather murky and uncomfortably warm, we soon decided to trade the beach for the pool at the caravan park, before returning to the beach to make the most of the low tide by going on an exploratory walk across the rocky mudflats from Andrews Point at the end of the beach to Wedge Island just offshore.
With the late-afternoon sun dipping lower and lower towards the horizon - and bringing colours out of the rock that had not been previously apparent - it was the perfect time of day to appreciate the rugged beauty of the coastline; and yet all the while there was barely ever another person in sight. In fact about the only company we had on the walk was an eastern grey kangaroo that had been lying around in the sandy ground resting as we set out on our hike, and was then feeding on the grass only a few metres away when we returned over an hour later. But in a week when we had seen our first koalas and platypus of
Wedge Island under an almost full moon
the whole trip, a mere kangaroo sighting was barely enough to illicit any interest from us at all!
After a peaceful night at Cape Hillsborough, we decided it was too hot the next day to go for a hike as we had intended, so instead we indulged in a mini-golf tournament at the caravan park - which resulted in a 3-0 series victory to me, despite some terrible putting that left me with a score of 30 on one hole! (The fact that I still won that 9-hole round speaks volumes for just how badly Linda was going...)
Back on the road we stopped off at Cedar Creek Falls in Conway National Park, where it became apparent that the wet season had not yet started in these parts, as there was not a single drop of water falling into the meager swimming pool at the base of the cliff! From there we headed out to Shute Harbour to take in the impressive views of forested islands surrounded by turquoise water at the entrance to the Whitsunday Islands; before back-tracking ten kilometres to a place that is as synonymous with backpackers as anywhere in Australia: Airlie Beach.
Waterfall without the water falling
Cedar Creek Falls in Conway National Park
was in this small town (with a population of just a few thousand permanent residents) that I began my backpacking journey after leaving South-East Queensland behind nearly ten years ago, and though I had not been back in almost eight years - during which time plenty of development had taken place, not the least of which being a brand new marina - there was still a strong feeling of familiarity from the time that I had spent there... though how on earth I managed to last twelve months in a place where there really isn't much to do besides hanging out at the artificial lagoon during the day and getting drunk at the various backpacker bars at night (both of which I indulged in on an almost daily basis) I may never know...! But there does happen to be one other justification for visiting Airlie Beach, and it is for this reason that almost every backpacker on the East Coast of Australia (Linda and myself included) finds their way into the town at some point or other - the chance to do a boat trip out to the beautiful Whitsunday Islands.
Having previously done a 3-day/2-night sailing trip around
The boat for our Whitsunday Islands cruise
the Whitsundays eight years ago - and loved every single minute of it - I had every intention of taking Linda on a similar trip... until we set about trying to book something in the weeks before we arrived in town, and discovered to our dismay that almost every single overnight sailing trip (Airlie Beach has the largest commercial sailing fleet in the Southern Hemisphere) for the entire week was already fully booked due to that awful Australian tradition of Schoolies Week... whereby every student that has just completed their high school education heads to the nearest tourist hot-spot and proceeds to get completely trashed every night for a whole week in mid-November, despite being under-age!
As a result of this setback Linda and I had decided to settle for a day-trip to the islands instead, and so we booked ourselves a tour for the next day with Ocean Rafting - whose inflatable speed boats are renowned for flying across the water at speeds that run rings around the regular sailing boats. With our tour booked and the centre of town packed with 17-year-old schoolies, we headed out of town to the Seabreeze Tourist Park where the un-powered camping
Leaving white water in our wake
Zooming past Whitsunday Island on Ocean Rafting
area consisted of little more than rocky dirt with a few trees - though at least this was redeemed somewhat by the excellent resort-style swimming pool (complete with water features for kids and the young-at-heart) at which we spent the rest of the afternoon splashing about with wild abandon!
Thursday brought our much anticipated day-trip to the Whitsunday Islands aboard one of Ocean Rafting's speedy vessels, and despite having previously done a number of day-trips to the islands with other companies I would have to say this was the most enjoyable one yet! Not only are Ocean Rafting's boats quicker than pretty much every other vessel in the Whitsundays, they also provide the most exhilirating ride as the captain of each boat (in our case a South African named Jason) intentionally crosses paths with every other company's boats only metres behind their motors, so as to bounce over their bow waves... and all of which is done at a speed of around 30 knots (or 54 km/h for those not so nautically-inclined)!
While this provides plenty of excitement for the folks onboard the Ocean Rafting boats, I'm sure it's also done as a way of showing off to
Our boat far below in Hill Inlet
the guests on all of the other company's boats - as if to say 'look how much more fun you'd be having if you came on our boat!' This tactic was further demonstrated towards the end of the day when we returned to Daydream Island and Jason proceeded to turn on the most exhilirating exhibition of sharp turns and wave jumping yet - and all in full view of the beachfront resort! Needless to say we certainly had no objections - the more thrills and spills the better as far as we were concerned!
As for the tour itself, we first stopped in Tongue Bay to follow a walking trail up and over Tongue Point, where a pair of lookout platforms provide the most famous view in all of the Whitsundays - that of the swirling sands of Hill Inlet backed by the sandy stretch of Whitehaven Beach. And though the combination of high tide and a full moon meant that the sands of Hill Inlet were less visible than usual, it is nevertheless a view that never ceases to impress me - regardless of how many times I have seen that image plastered on tourist brochures up and
High above Hill Inlet on Whitsunday Island
down the East Coast.
From the lookouts we then headed down the other side of the headland to the beach at Hill Inlet, where we were able to swim in the crystal clear waters sheltered behind a sandbar, before indulging in our buffet lunch back onboard the boat - and all the while we had the occasional small lemon shark swimming past! After lunch we motored north back up alongside Whitsunday Island and Hook Island (the two largest islands in the group) before stopping off to snorkel at a couple of the fringing reefs on the north-eastern side of Hook Island - with the coral gardens at Mackerel Bay being preferable to those at Mantaray Bay later on.
Though it's no substitute for an overnight sailing trip (particularly on one of the 3-day/2-night boats) which we hope to do together at some point in the future, it was nevertheless a fantastic way to spend the day; as well as being an excellent introduction to the wonders of the Whitsunday Islands - especially for Linda, who had never been there before and wasn't expecting the islands to be so mountainous or densely-forested. Having said that, we were looking forward
Powder White Sand
On the beach at Hill Inlet
to escaping the crowds and getting back to nature in some of the national parks that the tropical north has to offer, for what would be the final week of our road-trip...
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