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Published: October 27th 2007
It’s been a while since I last ‘blogged’ and we’ve managed to rack up a whole heap of experiences since we crossed the border into Queensland from the Northern Territories, which means I’m getting hideously behind in my write ups. I’m going to change from my normal style of writing and list each experience/location/activity in separate subsections, making it much easier for me to write (remember), and hopefully better for you to read. Mt Isa
A couple of hundred Km into Queensland, this was the first town we came across of any great size. It’s quite large, based primarily around a huge mine, rich in various metals, and attracts many people due to the job opportunities it creates. We were only stopping though to recharge, clean our clothes and generally enjoy a bit of civilisation, having been driving through the outback for the last few days. The town also houses the Riversleigh Fossils Centre, which according to the guidebook is one of the worlds best, and as this sounded right up my street we had to go have a look.
Riversleigh is located a north of Mt Isa and due to the conditions over the last few (up
to 20) million years it is one of the worlds most abundant fossil deposits. It details the history of the unique wildlife in this vast and strange continent and tells the story of a very different Australia, than the dry country we see today.
The centre itself showed great promise when we entered it, as it was beautifully presented with amazing displays, and at the start there was even a short documentary presented by the great Sir David Attenborough discussing the importance of the finds at Riversleigh. After the show, we walked in to see the displays, most of which were dioramas speculating what the animals detailed in the fossil record looked like and how they behaved. There was even a working palaeontology lab, complete with a bearded professor behind glass showing the work that’s carried out here. Sadly both Faye and I were a little disappointed as it was really small and underneath all the gloss and paint there were actually no complete fossil skeletons to see at the centre, not even any replicas. Sure, there were plenty of small fragments and skeleton parts to touch and look at and even real complete skeletons of current Australian fauna
Green Tree Frog
Faye found this staring at her from the toilet bowl one day.
for comparative purposes but the visual impact a reconstructed skeleton of any of the Megafauna
would provide, would of really made my day. Daintree National Park/.Cape Tribulation/Mossman Gorge
After Mt Isa we drove straight across Quensland to Townsville on the east coast, and this was by far the most boring drive we’ve done to date. Shortly after leaving Mt Isa the land turned into completely flat grazing land, and driving over a thousand kilometres with absolutely nothing to look at, other than the occasional herd of cattle was completely mind numbing. We didn’t stay in Townsville very long though, choosing instead to head as far up the east coast as we planned to go, and then work our way slowly down to Sydney.
A few hours north we arrived in the Daintree National Park, Cape Tribulation area, accessed by a short car ferry journey across the Daintree River. This area is part of the wet tropics world heritage area and is famed for its rainforest which is considered to be the most ancient in the world, surviving ice ages, violent volcanic activity and considerable changes in sea levels. It also has some incredibly beautiful pristine white sandy
beaches and is one of the few places in the world where tropical rainforest meets the sea.
The rainforests in this region are also home to one of Australia's largest species, the Southern Cassowary
, a huge flightless bird which is integral to the health of the rainforest as it disperses many of the forests seeds. In fact we learnt that some seeds will fail to germinate unless they’ve been through the digestive system of a Cassowary, making them very important indeed, but of course, due to habitat destruction and traffic fatalities they are a threatened species. We always kept our eye out but sadly failed to spot one.
We first visited the Daintree Discovery Centre
, which provides comprehensive information on the Daintree and its environment. It also has many boardwalks both at ground and mid level in the surrounding rainforest and a 23m tower enabling visitors to experience the rainforest canopy. We completed many of the rainforest walks in the area, always keeping our eye out for anything interesting but as is usually the case when you’re in a rainforest you can hear many animals and birds but due to great camouflage or dense foliage never really see them. We also
spent some time on the beaches looking out on the beautiful sea of blue only to be able to turn around and look at the amazing sea of green covering the rugged hills behind.
South of the Daintree river is Mossman Gorge, another part of the Daintree National Park. We managed to arrive really early here before the crowds turned up and enjoy a quiet 2km walk around the lowland rainforest before going for a refreshing dip in the crystal clear, incredibly cold Mossman River, which cascades over huge granite boulders through the park. Palm Cove/Cairns
Due to the size of Cairns it was impossible to find anywhere to free camp so we ended up staying at a super cheap council run campsite at Palm Cove
, one of Cairns’ northern beaches. Palm cove is dominated by luxury top end accommodation/spas with the campsite at the end, near the jetty, (keeping the riff raff out of the way) it was a really nice place and it was great to have all the luxuries for once, like hot showers. We spent a few lazy days there, only once venturing into Cairns to book a dive course which would start in
a week’s time. Atherton Tablelands
As we had a week to kill before our dive course started, we didn’t want to venture too far away from Cairns as we’d only have to make our way all the way back, so we ventured into the Atherton Tableland. The tableland is a fertile plateau and is part of the Great Dividing Range; it has an average altitude of about 700m but has parts over 1000m. It’s quite a large area scattered with lakes, waterfalls, national parks and state forests, all of which creates some really stunning scenery.
Our first stop was a short rainforest walk to Baron Falls, a spectacularly large fall, which due to it being the dry season, was a mere trickle. From here we drove over to the Mareeba wetlands
, a 5000+ acre man made bird watchers paradise, created to encourage native wildlife to the area as their natural habitat is in decline. It’s possible to walk around the reserve but for the same price we were able to get a small electric boat and guide to take us out over the water. We were lucky enough to be in the boat with just the guide and
Honestly, what was all the fuss about?
a real hard core twitcher, (bird watcher) which was kind of cool as their passion for the birds we were seeing was quite infective. We cruised around the beautiful lagoon for a good half an hour so, seeing all the usual suspects, but there was one bird in particular they were looking for, the White-Browed Crake. After hearing the distinctive ‘cheep’ coming from some lilies, the boat was turned around and we slowly glided around the area looking for the elusive bird. Of course, Faye and I didn’t have a clue what we were looking for but we joined in, scanning all the nearby reeds. I spotted a small brown bird after a couple of minutes, but thought surely that can’t be what all the fuss is about… after pointing it out though, the excitement on board rose considerably and we followed it for a short while she tried to get the necessary photo.
One of the most famous trees in Australia was our first sight located around Yungaburra, a heritage listed village in the centre of the tableland. The curtain fig is a strangler fig, an epiphytic
tree common in the rainforests which wrapped round a large rainforest
These noisy buggers are everwhere!
tree, later fell onto an adjacent tree causing a ‘curtain’ of aerial roots to be formed. Although quite impressive, there really wasn’t much there other than a short boardwalk leading you round a pile of roots, so it was only a quick stopover.
Close to the village is the Crater Lakes National Park, a pair of volcanically formed beautiful lakes. We walked the lengthy rainforest walk around Lake Barrine but the real star was Lake Eacham, where we spent time spotting saw shelled turtles and swimming and diving off the swimming pontoon into the beautifully clear water. I also spent a good hour defending evolutionary theory from an unlikely looking hardcore religious nut, who repeatedly tried to convert me to the ways of the Lord. Faye of course thought this was funny as hell and just looked on, silently chuckling to herself. Maybe it’s the ridiculous scruffy beard which attracted him to me, or maybe I look like I need saving; still he argued well, but failed to convince me that I need to live my life any differently.
We also drove around the nearby ‘waterfall circuit’, a short drive round a series of beautiful waterfalls. We visited
Millaa Millaa falls first, and even though it had an overweight guy wearing far too tight/small lycra shorts swimming in it which kind of distracted from the beauty, it set a benchmark that the others on the drive failed to match but they were all pretty amazing in their own way.
My most memorable moment in the tableland, will be the last night we spent in Yungaburra stalking one of Australia’s strangest animals and national icon, the Platypus
. Yungaburra has a small Platypus viewing platform looking out over the creek on the edge of the village, but we were told by a nearby information centre not to just hang around there, because Platypus obviously don’t know it’s a viewing platform and swim in front of it. So after having a good look around, we went down to the river bank and slowly walked along, vigilantly looking out for the characteristic rippling of the water we’d been told about. We walked quite a way along the bank only encountering the odd turtle and getting overexcited at hearing the smallest splash but not seeing anything so turned around and started walking back, only this time even slower. It wasn’t long till
we came across another group of Platypus watchers who beckoned us over and told us there was one right in front of them. A stream of bubbles was pointed out, so we kept watching and waited, it only took a few moments but right next to where the bubbles appeared the little Platypus popped up and bobbed around on the surface. It was a really incredible moment, it was so much smaller than I imagined but so unbelievable amazing. We followed the little creature for a short while, always watching for the stream of bubbles, a much better sign than disturbed water, as it would always pop right up next to them. Once we had a better idea of what we were looking for, it didn’t take us long to spot three more on the walk back to the car, making it a very successful evening, one we’ll probably remember for a long time. Cairns/Great Barrier Reef
We were back in Cairns for the dive course we booked a week earlier. Diving is something both of us had always wanted to get into, and something we’d assume we’d do in Asia as it’s so cheap there. As it
turns out, due to the local competition, the prices in Cairns were really reasonable, not as cheap as South East Asia of course, but if we completed the course here, we’d see what the Great Barrier Reef has to offer and be all certified for when we come across the many dive sites scattered round our travels.
Although not as cheap as other companies, we chose to do our course with Pro Dive
, one of the most reputable operators in the region… they had also been recommended by a friend and the Lonely Planet. They also had a great refund policy which meant up to the end of the first day, if we didn’t like it or failed the mandatory medical (required by law in Queensland) we’d be entitled to a complete refund, thankfully we both passed the medical so no worries there. The course consisted of 2 days theory and pool training at Pro Dive’s dive school and then 3 days out on the outer reef on one of Pro Dive’s liveaboard vessels. For the first couple of days we based ourselves back at Palm Cove taking advantage of Pro Dive’s free transfer service.
When the first day
Sadly due to the failing light this photo is terrible...
arrived we were both really excited and a little apprehensive, not really knowing what to expect and unsure as to whether we’d even like it. We were picked up by one of the guys who works at the dive centre as he happened to live nearby, so it was cool to chat to a pro before started and he really put us at ease, telling us that we’d absolutely love it. We were in the classroom for the morning on our first day and after meeting our instructor Matt, a tiny Swiss guy with an amazing accent and filling out all the paperwork, we soon got stuck into the theory, taking the odd quiz and watching the ridiculously acted PADI training videos. It was all good though and the time soon flew by to the afternoon, when the real fun would begin.
The afternoon would be spent in the pool putting into practise all the things we learnt in the classroom and after a short introduction to the equipment we donned our wet suits, put on all our gear and got into the shallow end of the pool. Sensing our eagerness, Matt told us to put in our regulator
(mouth/breathing part) and put our heads under water. Being an avid snorkeller it wasn’t as strange an experience as I thought it would, but still odd as your first instinct is to hold your breath, something you really can’t do as it’s the one of the most important rules in SCUBA diving. While we were in the shallow end we practised all the techniques important to safety while underwater, the worst of which was a flooded mask or removal of the mask. It only takes a short while to become relaxed and stop being so conscience of the fact your breathing underwater, but not being able to see was just terrible, still it was really important as it’s really likely to happen, especially with a lot of other divers kicking round in the water. None of the skills were particularly difficult and we spent a good three hours in the pool, becoming more and more comfortable in the water. It was a real saddening time when we had to leave and it only left us eager for more, but at least we were sure we weren’t going to utilise the refund policy!
Our second day at dive school was
very similar to the first only in reverse. First thing in the morning we had a talk from a guy who’s been diving for many, many years all over the world in every imaginable condition to discuss how to choose the correct equipment when buying our own. It was really useful especially as Faye and I had been considering buying own our masks and snorkels for a while. It was also great as the school had a huge range of masks and fins that we could try out in the pool to see the difference in technologies available. After finding masks that we all liked, we spent the rest of the morning in the pool practising more skills and gaining more confidence with the equipment.
For lunch we went into the centre of Cairns and visited the dive shop to pick out our equipment for the following days out on the reef, and we were also given the opportunity to buy our own equipment. As Faye and I snorkel everywhere we can, we decided to invest in our own mask, snorkel and fins which we’d obviously use for diving as well. It all cost a small fortune, but hopefully
the amount we’ll save in rental costs will gradually offset it, I was far more concerned with the size of the fins though, but I’m sure we’ll be able to strap them to our packs somehow.
Our final afternoon sessions in the classroom were just as dull as the previous day with more knowledge reviews and ridiculous PADI videos. This day was only different in that it finished with a final exam, encompassing all the things we’d learnt over the last couple of days. It wasn’t particularly difficult though, most answers being common sense and it was multiple choice (guess), which always helps. After all our answers had been checked and we’d all passed, there was a great feeling in the room as this was the end of the theory section of our certification. Yay!!!!
In the evening we visited Reef Teach
, a lecture held by a marine biologist in the centre of Cairns aimed at improving understanding of the reef and the animals that inhabit it. It was really useful as it gave us more of an idea as to what to see and where to look for specific fish.
The next day started really early as
we had to drive to the dive school where we’d leave the car while we’d be out at sea. At 6:15 we were then taken to the dive shop to pick up our equipment and taken to the boat, where we were given breakfast and the usual obligatory safety talk. The boat was a real beauty and quite spacious, it housed 32 divers and 6 crew, all in double or twin cabins. It wasn’t long before we were heading on the two hour journey to the outer reef. The trip was quite rough and both Faye and I were glad we’d taken sea sickness tablets, but I still felt a little queasy so I went to our bunk to lie down. We were told that as soon as we heard the engines power down we would be near the dive site and should immediately head to the rear of the boat to gear up, ready to enter the water as soon as the boat was moored. Considering how excited I was to start our first ‘real’ dive, I surprisingly fell asleep and only woke up once the engine sound changed, and dashed to the back of the boat.
quickly donned their wet suits and gear, moved to the very rear of the boat and jumped in. Matt gave us the go ahead to descend using a reference line and we all started to go down. There was a small sandy area 12m down that we aimed for and were told to kneel on the bottom. It was such an incredible feeling to be surrounded by such an immense amount of water, to actually be breathing underwater like a fish. Several large batfish who were hanging around underneath the boat were really curious, coming really close to check out the latest invaders of their world. Just seeing this one sight was enough to instantly put you at ease as it was such a magical experience. Our first certifying dive was just spent swimming around exploring the reef, getting used to being in the ocean, it was shocking just how quickly the time flies, it felt like only moments had passed when it was time to ascend and make our way back to the boat.
We only had one more dive scheduled for that day, the second of our certifying dives; we had to go through all the skills
we’d been learning in the pool, only this time much deeper. I was so eager to get back into water; even the dread of knowing that I’d have to remove my mask didn’t faze me… After our second dive, we were left to snorkel for the rest of the afternoon and while out on the reef, Faye and I were lucky enough to see two huge grey reef sharks circling in a small sandy depression, as well as the hundreds of different species of colourful reef fish.
On our second day we had our final two certifying dives in the morning, the first starting at 18m, the deepest we’d be allowed to go without further training. On each dive, after completing all the skills required we were led around the surrounding reefs soaking up all the amazing marine life, and once back on the boat we had a small ceremony where our Open Water Diver cards were handed to us; that was it, we were now certified Open Water Divers, we had our licence to go drown…
Now came the realisation that we were on our own, no more divemaster holding our hands while we were underwater, it
was such a liberating feeling. Our first dive of the afternoon would be the first on our own so we joined the rest of the certified divers on the boat for an orientation meeting on the next dive site. We heard some real horror stories from other people who had dived on the GBR in that it can be very crowded, but thankfully Pro Dive has its own exclusive mooring sites, so there is only one boat at any site at one time. With the choice of 16 dive sites the boat moves around between them, meaning that no two dives were the same. The next site was their premium dive site with several large coral bommies scattered about, it was also quite a shallow dive, which meant less air usage and longer bottom times... Yay!
Faye and I started the dive following the suggested route set out by the crew on the boat, but quickly lost our bearings and just explored on our own steam, it was amazing for just the two of us to be out there, in charge of where we went, where we stopped, what we looked at. While we were exploring I spotted a Green Turtle
surface about 20m away and then dive again, so Faye and I slowly followed it back to the reef, where it stopped and started grazing on the coral. We managed to get really close to it without disturbing it at all; it really didn’t mind that we were there. We were lucky we saw it when we did, if it had already been on the reef we might of just swam straight past, with its camouflaged shell and head buried between the coral it blended right in. We hung about for quite a while, feeling privileged that we were witnessing such an amazing animal just going about its daily business. Of course in the blink of an eye, our time was almost up and our air was running low so we headed back to the boat, being lucky enough to spot another couple of turtles, one of which was a Hawksbill
Our next scheduled dive was a guided night dive on the same part of the reef, we were excited to see how the reef changed at night, wondering which species went to ‘bed’ and which were the party animals. We were all given our own torches and
small glowsticks to attach to our gear so we’d be seen by others in the water. We spent half an hour in the water and it was quite an eerie experience only being able to see a small circle of light in front of you and not knowing if anything was swimming only a couple of meters away unless you shone your torch directly at it. In truth it was actually a disappointing dive, I thought the reef might come alive at night, but it seemed that everything went to sleep, just nowhere near where we were diving
We had three dives scheduled for our final day, the first dive starting at 6 in the morning, for the following two, Faye and I hired an underwater camera, hoping to capture some of the incredible things we were seeing. We didn’t manage to spot any large animals but were content in trying to get photos of the little colourful guys.
We left the outer reef just after midday getting back into Cairns about 3:30, and after sorting out all of the equipment we were dropped off back at our car at the dive school. In the evening we went
back into town to meet up with the other divers and crew for a drink and chat about the last few days. Faye and I have really caught the bug and have decided that on our quick drive down to Sydney (we’re really running out of time) we were going to stop at Ayr and dive the wreck of the S.S Yongala, reputedly the best dive site in Australia. SS. Yongala
The Yongala sank in 1911 in a cyclone and is situated just of the coast near Ayr, several hundred Km south of Cairns but still situated within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. There are two companies who dive the Yongala, Pro Dive in Townsville, which requires a 3 hour boat ride to the wreck and Yongala Dive
based only 30 mins away. As we’ve got our own wheels we chose Yongala Dive sleeping on the beach prior to our dive day.
What makes the Yongala so spectacular you may ask? As with most wrecks it’s been reclaimed by the sea becoming almost entirely encrusted with corals and covered with marine life, the wreck is in open sea, completely surrounded by sand with no reefs nearby. This
means all the life flocks to the boat and there is almost an entire reef ecosystem, all contained within the 110m of the wreck.
As the bottom of the wreck is at 28m we had to pay extra to have our first dive logged as a deep water training dive, but thankfully we can use it at a later date to obtain our Advanced Open Water certification. We completed the necessary training at 28m at the beginning of the dive then ascended to view the rest of the wreck, almost immediately it was easy to see why this dive site is regarded so highly, it was literally teeming with fish. There were swarms of colourful reef fish pouring over every feature, shoals of Giant Trevally circling the wreck, we immediately spotted a huge Hawksbill turtle resting on the bottom by the bow, turned around and found a green turtle fast asleep on the deck, turned again and came face to face with a defiant lion fish, watched a sea snake swim upwards only feet from us, and this was only in the first ten minutes. Every look at the wreck was a feast for the eyes; every turn was
a complete joy. I really can’t describe just how stunning those 35 minutes we spent down there were. It really was a disappointment to have to ascend; the only saving grace was that we knew we another dive to go.
Our second dive on the wreck was just as superb as the first, we managed to spot a large shovelnose ray
swimming past us which was an incredible sight. As well as everything we saw on the first dive. I even had a face off with a giant Coral Trout
coming nose to nose with it till it swam off.
After both dives we headed back to shore, completely blown away by what we’d just seen. We think we may have spoilt ourselves too soon, as we’re sure it’s going to be a long time till we experience diving that good again. It has fuelled our passion even more though, and we’re now going try and dive in all the countries we visit in Asia, maybe even detouring to visit recommended sites. Cape Hillsborough
Before we detoured away from the coast we decided to stay the night at Cape Hillsborough National Park
, a park made famous by the Wallabies and Eastern Grey
Kangaroos that hang around on the beach at sunrise. We spent a relaxing time at the resort waking really early to go see the wildlife on the beach. As the sun rose there was four kangaroos kicking around on the beach, they were really tame and approached everyone who was nuts enough to be up so early, probably checking for hand outs. It was a really beautiful sight and it was great to get so close to them, we were even lucky enough to see two square off and have a grapple, determining who was tougher. Gemfields
Our next destination required a welcome return to the outback, as we wanted to try fossicking in the gemfields of Queensland. We first stopped in Emerald at the visitor information centre and got some really helpful advice on the best ways of finding sapphires, the main ways being:
- Gaining fossicking permits and going ‘Specking’. This involves strolling around the gemfields with a stooped posture looking at the ground for any glinting or sparkly sapphires, this technique tends to have more success after rainfall.
- Gaining fossicking permits, renting the appropriate equipment and digging around in the wash (gravel)
Gemfield - The loot...
We're getting these 3 cut into beautiful gems...
looking for sapphires.
- Buying a bucket of wash at many of the local outlets in the area, and then sifting through it looking for sapphires which does not require a permit.
- Walking into any of the local gem stores and fossicking shops with a wad of cash in hand. Does not require a permit!
As it hadn’t rained recently, we don’t have huge bundles of cash and neither I nor Faye has the faintest idea what sapphire bearing wash looks like we chose the bucket method. We chose a mine we had a leaflet for and arrived early before it got too hot. We both bought a bucket each for $8 and were given instructions on how to look through it. There are effectively 3 stages:
Sieve the wash - this just removes the dust and fine matter from the gravel.
Wash the wash- This involves repeatedly ‘jiggling’ the sieve up and down on the surface of a trough of water for a few minutes removing all the dirt and mud. Once you have the technique right due to the specific gravity of the gem being greater than the surrounding wash they work
their way into the centre of the sieve.
Search the wash - once the washing step is finished the sieve is flipped over on a table in the sunshine and then searched, working from the centre outwards, looking for any glass like chips.
It took about an hour to search through the entire bucket, probably due to our extra scrutiny and we also went through it twice, in case we missed anything. We found loads and loads of tiny chips and each of us found one quite large piece in our buckets. After getting our haul checked we were told that these two pieces were worthy of being cut, which just made us want to carry on so we bought another couple of buckets. This time Faye wasn’t as lucky, just finding the usual small chips, but I managed to find an even larger piece which just annoyed her further. We’ve paid the centre $120 to cut all 3 stones and then send them home for us, where we’re planning to have them set in a ring for Faye. Faye’s really caught the bug now and I literally had to drag her away from the mine, she could
The journey so far....
Map courtesey of Lonely PLanet. :)
Distance travelled: 14982.4 km
Amount spent on fuel: $2211.52 (£961.53)
have spent all day rummaging through mud. Australia Zoo
CRIKEY… Our final stop in Queensland would be Australia Zoo
on the Sunshine Coast. Our time was running out due to us having to be in Sydney by the 17th for a hospital appointment I had and we also had to consider how long it would take to sell the van. Although not particularly cheap ($49 each) we had a great day at the zoo, probably more to do with my infatuation with the late, great Steve Irwin, although it is an incredibly impressive place, with large enclosures and a purpose built ‘crocoseum’ with daily shows focusing on the importance of conservation. Steve’s image is still everywhere around the zoo, and it felt like we were walking around a huge tribute, to him and the empire he’d built. It really is an amazing place, which I’d recommend, both to Irwin-o-philes and zoo fans everywhere.
After the Zoo, we started the drive to our final destination, stopping for few hours in Brisbane to check out the city, and the Gold Coast, which we were certain we wouldn’t like but we needed to confirm it… We didn’t like it! We carried on driving, leaving the Sunshine State behind us… Next stop Sydney!
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