Heading to the tropical north from Brisbane

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May 31st 2016
Published: December 4th 2016
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After a fantastic five months in New Zealand, we hopped on board a short flight to Brisbane to begin our three month trip around Australia. Having thoroughly enjoyed living in the great outdoors in NZ, we decided that camper vanning would be the way to travel around Australia, so we picked up our, this time rented, campervan and set off north from Brisbane. As much as we loved “Trev”, our very own trusty Toyota van we had just parted with in New Zealand, we were pretty pleased to find our Australian home on wheels was much more spacious and better equipped than Trev, albeit still slightly battered with plenty of little quirks to keep us on our toes (it was the budget version after all).

After a few teething problems, involving a rather heavy table dropped on Ross’ toe and an impressive head butt of the sink by Liz, we set off north to explore the Sunshine Coast Hinterland, a pretty area full of small mountain towns, rainforests and rolling countryside, before dropping down to the upmarket coastal town of Noosa. Noosa is located next to a national park on the headland, so we spent a day walking around this, swimming in the warm waters and spotting our first koala happily snoozing high up in a gum tree over the beach. Our journey then took us north through the Noosa Everglades to Rainbow Beach, Maryborough and Hervey Bay, with an unplanned visit to the lovely Tin Can Bay due to the navigator not paying enough attention. Hervey Bay is famous for whale watching but unfortunately the whales had not arrived yet, so we occupied ourselves with a walk along the very long pier followed by a huge ice cream.

Over the next few days we followed the Bruce Highway north through Bundaberg to Agnes Water, the most northerly surf spot on this coast, and Town of 1770, a tiny town that marks Captain Cook’s first landing in Australia. Unfortunately the surf wasn’t up and a small bush fire seemed to be raging around the Town of 1770, so after a walk on the beach and a cold beach shower, we continued on further up the Capricorn Coast to Yeppon and Emu Park, stealth camped in a supermarket carpark and enjoyed breakfast on the beach before crossing the Tropic of Capricorn in Rockhampton. Rockhampton was also home to a lovely free zoo, where we got to see sleeping koalas up close (they spend 20 hours per day asleep). The zoo also housed a half a ton male salt water crocodile that had been relocated from the nearby crocodile farm because he kept biting the legs of the female crocs. We spoke to the zoo keeper who explained to us that every other day, when he comes by the crocs enclosure to irrigate the lawn, the big croc slides into the water and watches him, learning his patterns and biding his time. One day the keeper thought the croc was going to make a lunge at him and the fence may not hold back half a tonne of reptile. On this note we quickly bid the keeper farewell and moved swiftly on to admire some of the more cuddly residents.

After a few days of beach life, we decided to head slightly inland to get away from the ever busy Bruce Highway. Turning inland at Marlborough we began along a very quiet road that wound its way through eucalyptus forest, how lovely and peaceful we thought. As our van is a rental we are not allowed to drive on unsealed roads, so Liz decided to do a quick internet search just to check the road was tarmacked. Fortunately the road was sealed, however, the search revealed that this quiet section of road was commonly known as “The Horror Stretch” and was listed as one of the scariest roads in Australia due to a series of murders back in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the road was the main north-south highway. Great. Suddenly Liz was imagining every passing truck to be full of psychopaths and the quiet and peaceful road has suddenly become quite sinister. Once we got over this, travelling along this stretch of highway became very interesting. After leaving the forest, the landscape opened up to parched scrubby grasslands, just as we had imagined Australia to look like, full of kangaroos. We passed a few deserted roadhouses and motels, abandoned after the new coastal highway was constructed effectively cutting off business overnight, and rolled up to the one remaining roadhouse and camp site at Lotus Creek run by Sandy, an expat Scotsman whose Scottish accent grew thicker and thicker throughout the evening despite having left Scotland over thirty years ago and never looked back. When we chatted about how dry the landscape was, Sandy explained that the area had not received a significant amount of rainfall for over three years.

Having survived the “Horror Stretch”, we crossed a small mountain range and descended into the green, lush tropics, a dramatic change after the barren landscape we’d been driving through. We wound our way through sugarcane towns and found ourselves close to the Eungella National Park, a place where you are almost guaranteed to spot a platypus. So, the next day, despite the torrential rain, we headed up the mountain and waited patiently to spot one of these elusive creatures. When we were almost about to give up, we saw our first platypus, a tiny little beast that surfaces for about thirty seconds to grind up its food and then dives down again. With the platypus ticked off our list of wildlife to spot in Australia, we descended the mountain and camped in a free camp next to a sugarcane plantation.

All over Australia there are many designated free camping spots, generally in small towns and villages that would otherwise not receive any tourists. The idea is that you camp at no cost but then spend a few dollars in the town to support the local economy. There are always quite a few characters in these camp sites and this one was no exception. We were soon invited over to join a “happy hour” gathering outside a large converted bus by a retired Australian couple, where we were told many gleeful stories about their encounters with the venomous and deadly beasts of Australia and given plenty of advice on where to check for spiders and frogs in the toilets. Low and behold, that night we encountered a big, bright green tree frog sitting smugly in the toilet bowl.

The following day we drove up to Airlie Beach where we joined a one day tour out to the beautiful Whitsunday Islands. We sailed on a catamaran out to two snorkelling spots where we got our first view of the Great Barrier Reef and all the colourful fish that live in the coral.

Having travelled northwards to Townsville, we decided to head inland again for another taste of dry, dusty, Queensland outback. We drove to the tiny gold mining village of Ravenswood, where we admired the historic pubs, buildings and old mining paraphernalia lying about the village. The village feels like a ghost town, but it’s just about surviving with a population of around 300 sustained by the current gold mining operations which are set to continue for another 10 to 15 years. We spent the evening visiting the “white blow”, a quartz outcrop we reached just as the sun was setting. With the orange earth, scrubby bush and abundance of kangaroos and wallabies, we felt very much like we’d hit the Australia of Crocodile Dundee fame.

Our next major stop was the small coastal town of Mission Beach where we joined another snorkelling trip out to the Reef. Again we visited two different snorkelling locations, this time a long way offshore on the more pristine outer reef. The colours of the corral and the great variety of fish that we snorkelled over were just amazing and we both stayed in the water as long as physically possible. The day was made all the more exciting by Ross being washed off the back of the boat and luckily quickly scooped up by a member of staff all in one piece.

Having thoroughly enjoyed our journey north from Brisbane to the tropical north coast, we decided to head inland from Mission Beach into the Atherton Tablelands, a lush, agricultural region full of waterfalls, lakes and Queensland’s highest mountain. The fresh, cool and bug free air was blissful after a few weeks of camping in the tropics. We spent a day or so exploring the Tablelands, driving around the waterfall circuits and visiting the Crater Lakes National Park before heading off on our long drive west along the Savannah Way to the Red Centre.

During our tropical Queensland travels we have learnt:

- It can get really very hot in a campervan in the Tropics.

- Koalas sleep for up to twenty hours a day. Ross likes the idea of this.

- The croc warning signs should be taken seriously. Many Far North Australian waterways could be home to a lurking saltwater croc, sizing you up as its next meal. These beasties can grow up to seven metres long, making a human just a snack.

- If the crocs don’t get you, the jellyfish will. The alluring, turquoise waters of the Queensland coast are also home to the box and the tiny Irukandji jellyfish, both with potentially deadly toxins.

- It’s best to stick to swimming pools in northern Queensland, although Ross has become highly suspicious of all Australia water bodies.

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