Tag Archives: travel

Out of the darkness

 

There are hidden treasures in the great grasslands of north-west Queensland and not all of them are gold and sapphires, as I discover on a drive along the Savannah Way


 

Undara lava tubes were created as rivers of hot lava flowed across the land some 190,000 years ago.

Undara lava tubes were created as rivers of hot lava flowed across the land some 190,000 years ago.

Unexpected warmth emanates from the cavernous tunnel before us. Its source is not the river of hot molten lava that formed this high semi-circular “tube” – that cooled about 190,000 years ago. Hardy bushes now grow in the tumble of rocks at its entrance.

It comes in waves as if the cave is breathing.

Behind us the temperature is dropping as the sun sinks towards the dry savannah horizon. We wait patiently, eyes keenly peeled for any sign of movement. But the warmth endures as the sun sets over the savannah behind us, glowing deep orange.

Sunset over the western Queensland savannah at Undara Volcanic Park

Sunset over the western Queensland savannah at Undara Volcanic Park

A faint odour wafts from inside the cave, hinting at what’s lurking inside. I try not to breathe too deeply or make any sudden moves. Voices are hushed as we all focus on the darker depths of the lava tube.

Minutes pass. There’s a rush of air past my shoulder. I duck as movement flits past my face.

These are the scouts, checking if it is time yet. The light is dimming and the flash of wings comes more often, disappearing back into the cave’s depths. My eyes adjust with the fading light.

Before long there is a swirl of 20 or so tiny creatures circling in the cave entrance only metres in front of me, building up confidence to venture past. A 5cm fur-ball zips past me into the cool dusk air – followed by another and another. As if on cue, hundreds of resident horseshoe and bent-wing microbats dart for the surface en masse.

Out of the darkness there's a rush of wings

Out of the darkness there’s a rush of wings

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The sheer numbers make them easy prey for pythons which strike from the bushes crowding the cave entrance.

The snakes are more prevalent during the warm summer months – when bat numbers also swell with the breeding season.A python strikes (look closely for the bat wing as it swallows its prey).

A python strikes (look closely for the bat wing as it swallows its prey).

But the call of nature is strong and they continue to run the gauntlet to freedom and food. Finely tuned sonar ensures the bats don’t collide with each other or the humans vying to get a photograph but it is impossible not to duck as they whiz past.

Measuring only 5cm long and with a 10cm wingspan, thousands of the insectivorous microbats emerge from this particular lava tube at Undara every night. The creatures need to eat their own body weight in insects before the sun returns at dawn and play a vital role in the  web of life on the savannah.

Our Savannah Guide Ivor Davies says the bat population can swell to a million during the summer breeding season, taking up to 90 minutes to vacate their daytime abode. During winter there can be a steady stream of creatures for 20 minutes or more. The effect is mesmerising.

This is the excitement of the Sunset Wildlife Tour at Undara Experience, a national park-based tourist facility some 275km southwest of Cairns on the Savannah Way, in north Queensland.

The lava tubes are among the longest in the world – more than 90km long – formed as an estimated 23 cubic kilometres of molten lava flowed in rivers from a single volcano across the McBride Volcanic Province. It is one of the longest lava flows from a single volcano in modern geological time, spreading more than 160km to the north-west.

For more details go to: Undara Experience, Undara Volcanic National Park; Ph 1800 990 992; www.undara.com.au

This is just one of the natural wonders of the north-western Queensland section of the Savannah Way, a 3699km trans-national drive from tropical Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef to the remote pearling town of Broome, in Western Australia.

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Flyboarding out of a rut

Rise above it all with Flyboard Cairns - Ironman meets King Neptune. Picture courtesy of Flyboard Cairns

Rise above it all with Flyboard Cairns – Ironman meets King Neptune. Picture courtesy of Flyboard Cairns

Sometimes life gets so mundane we can’t see our way out of the rut of our daily routine – when you can only see what needs doing rather than what you feel like doing.

When I find myself in this state I know that drastic action is required. Another time this happened I signed up for the Minjin swing – being winched several storeys high up a metal tower and freefalling for several seconds before the swing kicked in and shot me out across the treetops at Kuranda markets. It was such an adrenalin-rush my knees were knocking so much afterwards I could barely stand. Great fun.

So this time I was sitting around feeling swamped by all the weeds that had overtaken my garden when I thought of Richard Branson.  Now that’s a man with a sense of adventure. I can’t imagine he even lets the word “boredom” into his vocabulary. He’s a superman of extreme action!

Now by the Law of Attraction, what you think you draw to you. And what you think about with emotion comes even faster. So, as it happens, the last time I felt really excited was watching a TV segment about this great new sport of Flyboarding. It looked fantastic – the presenter hovering above the water like a superhero with white water jets streaming out below his feet like some rocket exhaust.

It was a case of Marvel Comics’ Ironman meets King Neptune  – or science-fiction meets reality.

So a few days after musing over “what would Richard Branson be doing now” I was offered the chance to go Flyboarding. I didn’t even know Flyboard Cairns existed at that stage. With a mix of trepidation and anticipation I agreed to do it.

After all, when the Universe brings you what you ask for it is only polite to go with it.

Watching YouTube footage of the pros jetting 15m high did little to quell the fears of friends and family who know my mind often gets carried away with things my body is less capable of. But I knew I needed this. Balance and flexibility could be an issue – so I trotted off to an osteopath to ensure my spine could snake as much as the young bucks and beach babes on the flyboardcairns.com.au website – fat chance really.

Palm Cove with Double Island in the distance

Palm Cove with Double Island in the distance

Come 9am Saturday and it is a sightly-overcast day at the beautiful spa-spangled Palm Cove, about 30 minutes’ drive north of Cairns. The gentle blue-green swell of the Coral Sea is enticing. I make a mental note of an advertising board offering discount massages outside one of the hotels – may be needed after I’ve finished.

As I rock up to their beachfront setup opposite The Reef House resort, Flyboard Cairns director/instructor Luke Kanowski assures me it this brave new extreme sport looks a lot harder than it is. Fellow director Chris De Santo says it generally only takes 10 minutes of instruction to be standing up out of the water and 15 minutes to learn to manoeuvre on the Flyboard. There are no weight restrictions (big relief) and about 20 per cent of their clients are aged 55-70 (out go my preconceived ideas that this is just for the young guns).

After squeezing myself into a full-body wetsuit and helmet, safety briefing over, and I join Chris at the jet-ski to get strapped into my jet-boots. Facing into the waves, the jet-ski powers up and the exhaust water quickly fills the 20m hose connecting us. As it exits the two metal pipes on either side of the Flyboard I start to move forward. The feeling is weird – effortless. Alternatively bending one knee or the other effectively controls your direction. We head for the safety of deeper water. I practice circling the jet-ski. Tilting my toes upwards and miraculously I rise up out of the water like some sea serpent. Nerves kick in as I get higher, losing balance and falling into the sea. Chris assures me that from the beach it would appear that’s what I meant to do. Yeah, right. We practice dolphin dives and work up to hovering. I make it up to 1.5m above the water. It feels more like 4m. I come crashing down on my side – my humpback whale breaching impersonation.

Up, up and away

Up, up and away

Getting my balance

Getting my balance

Beginners can usually get up to 1-2m high, Chris says, up to 4m for those with nerve and balance. With extended repetition it is possible to hover up to 5-8m, he says, with pros reaching 15m and top speeds of 20km/h.

“It is more about style and aerial stunts,” Chris says, which excites these pioneering sportsmen the most.

“It is so new, we don’t know what we can do,” Luke says, likening it to the advances in skateboarding tricks since the 1970s. “We don’t know what is possible”.

Flyboard Cairns instructor Luke in action at Palm Cove

Flyboard Cairns instructor Luke in action at Palm Cove

With that in mind, the guys are hoping to attract flyboarders for a North Queensland competition in 2014, with the aim of taking a team to national and world competitions at the Gold Coast and in Qatar at the end of 2014.

So far the tricks include backflips, dolphin dives and variations such as the twister/tornado and corkscrew. It takes “twisting by the pool” to a whole new level.

Thank you to Chris and Luke for blasting me out of a rut. And I didn’t even need the massage afterwards. Highly recommended.

For more info: check out www.flyboardcairns.com.au

(Flyboard session provided courtesy of Flyboard Cairns.)

Spirit encounters or just plain spooky

Spirit encounter at Bakerville café?? Or just a speedy waitress. Picture credit: Sheree Scott

Spirit encounter at Bakerville café?? Or just a speedy waitress. Picture credit: Sheree Scott

Halloween is nearly upon us.

It is that time of the year when the veils between the realms of spirit and matter are thought to be at their thinnest – the time different cultures have determined when wandering spirits more easily make themselves known to the living and seek to leave the Earthly plane for the next stage in their evolution.

It has been my experience that spirits (be that ghosts/entities/energy imprints or thoughts forms) don’t just wait for Halloween (also called All Hallows Eve). They can make themselves known at just about any time. It may be they’re curious, ready for a change or just find someone they resonate with.

The truth is there are subtle vibrations coming to us all the time from the unknown or unseen reality, what people might consider the world of spirit. I’ve been on organised ghost tours of The Rocks in Sydney and Port Arthur in Tasmania – which certainly have their challenges for the “energy sensitive” but I’ve had far more spirit encounters in other “ordinary” places too numerous to mention.

One recent place I visited – whole-heartedly expecting to sense spirits – was Herberton Historical Village, about 90 minutes’ drive inland from Cairns in North Queensland. There are so many buildings and artefacts here from the 1800s onwards that you would well expect to sense a few echoes from the past. Well they were more like shouts. I did make the mistake of entering an old police lock-up building and tuning into the energy first up, followed by the adjoining gun display. The small 2x3m timber structure would have been a hell-hole in the tropical heat and the guns were certainly charged with emotion considering the lawless pioneering and gold mining days.  I couldn’t get out quick enough.

What ensued was an increasingly oppressive heaviness around my head which developed into a shocking headache, aided probably by dehydration as I continued exploring the extensive outdoor museum.

DonThe mechanical shoemaker is creepy.’t be put off, this is a great collection of everyday memorabilia and a wonderful time capsule of the 1900s, back into the 1800s. Just make sure you’re prepared – and don’t visit the jail lock-up first. There’s plenty of good vibes: an old movie projector from 1929; Daisy the 1923 T-Model Ford; a working steam engine built in 1886 from the Ravenshoe Saw Mill; a miner’s cottage, pharmacy, fire engine, sewing machines and radio/music room, the Tin Pannikin Pub and real classrooms from the former Herberton School.

At the other end of the  village museum is a café set out in the original Bakerville Hotel. My timing was perfect here to snap a “ghostly encounter” photo (top photo) – the woman in the picture wasn’t a real ghost, just a very quick waitress who glided into the picture at just the right time. I thought it was impressive.

Piano in the Bakerville café has character

Piano in the Bakerville café has character

They do have a piano here that does play itself which is rather spooky – it’s called the Pianola.

Bushie tends the camp fire at Herberton Historical Village.

Across a swing bridge is a truck and tractor graveyard which is a work in progress, and a place to sit and relax – the Bushie’s Pioneer Camp where you can get billy tea and damper or camp oven stew straight off the fire.

So if you want to go hunting spooks for Halloween – put Herberton Historical Village on your to-do list. You won’t be disappointed.

Can’t get to my spooky stomping ground in North Queensland? I know one book that might get you looking closer to home. In Where Spirits Dwell, real-life spooks in suburbia become almost second nature.

Book Review: Where Spirits Dwell by Karina Machado (publisher Hachette Australia) Where Spirits Dwell

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, journalist Karina Machado has gathered enough anecdotal evidence to show unexplained or paranormal events can happen to the most normal of people. I find something irresistible about a good ghost story and Where Spirits Dwell has them popping up all over the place. Definitely one to read in daylight hours, there’s the spine-tingling cases of a dark presence in the bedroom, where even a dog is scratching to get out of the house, to a dead girl who ate ant poison haunting a young family in Normanton in Australia’s remote north – possibly to stop history repeating.  There are infamous Australian haunted houses like The Abbey in Sydney, that stay in the dreams of past inhabitants, and cases of a loving mother on the other side who just want to care for someone else’s youngsters. Behind the facade of many Sydney homes, Machado finds tales of the bizarre and touching, weaving a descriptive tale of various experiences for a broad introduction to what might well happen to you. There is an intimacy created by snippets of Machado’s own experiences and general musings, which are more for believers and the curious than rigid sceptics.

Prepare to believe. And give yourself a salt scrub under the shower if it all gets too much, and leave a small tray of rock salt beside your bed for the night (remember to flush it down the toilet the next day).

It works for me.

Karumba surprise

ImageCrocs, prawns and barramundi aren’t all that the Gulf town of Karumba in northwest Queensland has to offer. I was recently surprised to see the diversity of wildlife on a Savannah Way drive out that way hosted by Tropical Tourism North Queensland (TTNQ for short).

Dawn547

It was the time of the June “super moon” – the moon being at its closest distance to Earth – and we were treated to a beautiful sunset, moonlit night and stunning moon-set the next morning (pictured) as fishing boats headed out to sea at all hours.

Fishing is a big drawcard for the Gulf of Carpentaria, but take care, the reminder that this is croc country can’t be missed by the 8.63m Krys croc statue (pictured top) on show in nearby Normanton’s main street. The original crocodile was shot by a woman, Krystina Paulokski, on the banks of the Normanton River in 1957. The river empties into the Gulf of Carpentaria at Karumba, some 832km from our starting point on the eastern coast at Cairns. For travellers short on time, Skytrans has regular flights from Cairns to Normanton, with car hire available.

Karumba isn’t just for the fishing enthusiasts, although it certainly reels them in every year. Birdlife abounds, including the tall grey brolgas on the Muttonhole Wetlands, which extend some 30km inland. There’s a great little waterhole near the road at Karumba Point where pink galahs gather in the evening to drink and wading birds can be seen in droves in the early morning, sifting through the shallows.

Kites gather on the powerlines around the town like pigeons do in other cities. Agile wallabies dart across the golf course and feed by the roadside at dusk.

We head for the boat ramp as fishermen return with their catch, one visitor proudly lifting two barramundi from the large coolbox in his dinghy. Others are casting for bait as pelicans wander the beach in the hope of an easy feed.

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The town has good accommodation for anglers, from the character holiday unit of Bunratty Castle (pictured above), built from bricks carried four at a time by bicycle from the old town meat works, to multiple caravan parks and the spacious Ash’s Holiday Units and Café, which has rooms for up to six people and does a massive cooked breakfast to keep you going all day.

As the sun sinks lower, the focus shifts to Karumba Point. Watching the sun set over the water, some three days after watching it rise over the Coral Sea north of Cairns at Palm Cove, is a fitting end to this segment of the Savannah Way drive. In between is a wealth of open skies, surprising natural encounters and a rich mining and pastoral history.

Hope you can come and explore it too some day soon (dry season or winter is the best time).

Check out drivenorthqueensland.com.au for trip ideas.

Babinda kayak adventure

Sunset over the tranquil Babinda Valley. Pictures: Babinda Kayak HIre

About an hour’s drive south of Cairns in Far North Queensland is a beautifully tranquil sugar-growing town of Babinda, where a crystal clear river flows from the lush, rainforest covered mountains.

It is a great place to reconnect with the beauty of nature – and have a relaxing time with friends who aren’t scared to jump into it’s icy waters (well, as icy as it gets in the tropics). There’s just something so relaxing about floating effortlessly down a river, especially one edged on either side by lush greenery.

The magical green waters of Babinda Boulders swimming hole

Babinda Kayak Hire offers the opportunity to get away from it all on the clear cool waters of Babinda Creek, paddling along a 9km flat stretch of the creek well downstream from the impressive Babinda Boulders (pictured).

The mountain-fed stream flows swiftly enough that you barely need to paddle if you don’t want to.
The creek alternates between shallow sandy stretches where you can easily see the fish darting out from under the kayak to deep, green pools which are edged with moss-covered granite boulders.

These can be several metres deep but are clear enough to see right to the bottom and are perfect for swimming in on a hot day. You can even hire a mask and snorkel if you really want to explore underwater.

The water level varies between the wet and dry season but is always lush.

Large submerged tree trunks are a reminder of the days when rainforest covered this whole region, now edged largely by sugar cane fields. A few remnant giants remain along the riverbank, where birdlife and butterflies can be seen frolicking.
A cormorant watches from an old branch sticking out of the water, as we glide through its territory, taking flight across the water when we get too close. A buff-breasted kingfisher is revealed by a flash of brilliant blue in some overhanging branches. A horde of finches move like a wave through the grasses. Frogs croak from their hiding places in the lush creepers that tumble into the water like a thick blanket. Large bamboo clumps reach out over the water, debris in the upper branches revealing how high the waters can rise in the wet season.
There are numerous sandy beaches formed as the main current weaves its way back and forth with the meandering creek and a grassy islet or two to paddle around if you want to stretch your muscles.

Stop for a picnic at one of the sandy beaches along the creek

The kayaks are easy to paddle, with a middle seat in the doubles for small children as well. The paddling area is outside the national park so people can even bring their dogs along – with one woman sharing her kayak with two border collies.
There’s a convenient strapped area on the back of the kayaks where you can put your things. Waterproof “dry” bags can be hired for a few dollars to keep cameras, wallets and towels in. Netting bags for things like drink bottles are free to use. It’s a good idea to bring along a snack or two as there’s plenty of time to stop along the way for a picnic.
Young and old can manage the trip easily because the current does all the work for you. (Towards the end of the dry the lower water levels make it a bit tricky over the low areas.) There are two pick-up points on the creek, easily marked by road and railway bridges.

We made it to the first pick-up point in about 90 minutes so there is time enough for 1-2 hours of playing around if you want to. We carried on to the second pick-up point, arriving just as the south-bound passenger train crossed the bridge. It’s surprises like that which make this a trip you could do again and again, rain or shine. We had an overcast day so didn’t feel much like swimming, but that didn’t matter because the silence and beauty of drifting downstream had its own appeal.
This is a trip that you can easily make as active or as relaxing as you want. It’s great for families and suitable for people of all ages and abilities. I enjoyed it so much I bought my own kayak!

Babinda Kayak Hire is at 330 Stager Rd, Babinda (about one hour’s drive or 60km south of Cairns) in Far North Queensland. Drive 3km south of Babinda turnoff on the Bruce Highway, turn right into Stager Rd and drive 3.3km and turn right into the driveway with the orange kayak sign.
Choice of half or full day kayak hire. Minimum two people. Bookings essential.

Babinda Boulders bottom lookout

Photography courtesy of Babinda Kayak Hire. For more details or to purchase copies of these photos go to:  www.babindakayakhire.com.au

Daintree getaway – exploring my wider backyard

This was my first overnight travel famil in about a year… published in the Cairnseye magazine in The (Cairns) Weekend Post on September 22. Although I already live in such a lovely spot surrounded by rainforest and wildlife (we are spoilt in North Queensland’s Wet Tropics) it was great to have a change of scene and it was a nice reminder to venture further afield more often.

    • So here is the larger story (newspapers are cutting back on words so much these days but I won’t get started on that just yet)…

The chuckling laughter of a kookaburra provides my morning wake-up call as sunlight filters through the natural curtain of greenery outside my room. Torn between snuggling under the covers of my comfy bed and the excitement of what I might find amid the morning quiet, I forgo the slumber and sneak outside. An orange-footed scrub hen and the “woompoo” call of the so-named fruit dove greet me. A majestic milky pine draped in epiphytes glows in the morning sunlight.

The milky pine is a centrepiece of the garden.

Small birds flit among its outstretched branches. Brilliant red flame of the forest and a lady’s slipper vine are also in flower. Buttress rooted trees create a magical walkway further over by the pond, a favourite hangout for kingfishers.

This is the attraction of Red Mill House Bed and Breakfast accommodation in the Daintree Village, about 110km north of Cairns in Far North Queensland. Owned and operated by birding specialists Trish and Andrew Forsyth, the character-rich original 1920s Queenslander caters for up to 12 guests at a time and was named among TripAdvisors’ Top 10 B&B experiences in 2011.

Red Mill House awaits

Breakfast awaits on the sunny upper veranda of the main house. It starts with a delight of fresh local fruits in season including pawpaw, banana, soursop, sapote, strawberry, melons and pineapple, with home-made yoghurt. That’s followed by home-made bread and prize-winning jams (yes, Trish makes it all); and if that’s not enough there’s a full cooked breakfast of local farm eggs, bacon, sausages, mushroom and tomato. It’s a hearty breakfast to keep anyone satisfied for whatever adventures  are planned for the day ahead.

Trish and Andrew are a wealth of information on what to do in the area, from bushwalks to the local waterfalls and river cruises to historical walks around the rural village, barramundi fishing and the attractions of the broader Daintree World Heritage wilderness region. They happily pre-booked us on the two-hour Daintree River Wild Watch sunset cruise with Ian “Sauce” Worcester  (www.daintreeriverwildwatch.com.au)

Little salty croc“Sauce” operates a low-sided open boat from the Daintree Village jetty (not the ferry crossing area) which is ideal for photography and bird-watching. He can get in low under branches and in close to the banks of the Daintree River and knows just where to find the local wildlife. For birders and non-birders it is a real treat. We got right alongside a small crocodile and green tree snake on the riverbank, and could coast in silently on birds like the Papuan frogmouth and a nesting sunbird for some great photos (for those with better photographic skills than me anyway).

The afternoon light provided stunning reflections on the water, and we spotted an azure kingfisher flitting among the ghostly mangrove roots down a secluded side creek.

The sunset cruise has the added highlight of returning to the jetty as flocks of cattle egrets head down the river to roost, passing around us in wave after wave.

Daintree Village is a quiet community of about 50 residents and offers a wonderful getaway about 90 minutes’ drive north of Cairns with a peaceful country atmosphere. Andrew and Trish have built up a reputation among birding circles, even lecturing overseas on the subject, so Red Mill House attracts many international guests keen to learn about the area. The B&B has a stack of reference books and a large timber lounge room where guests can relax and chat in a homely atmosphere.

Andrew explains the Far North is a mecca for birdwatchers around the world, with about 430 of the 730 bird species in Australia found within 200km of Cairns. They have bird trail maps available and bird lists to tick off species as they’re spotted. High on the list for Daintree River birders is the great-billed heron, a massive 1m lavender-grey coloured bird which took my breath away as it took flight out of some bushes as we passed by on the river cruise. At the other end of the scale is the large-billed gerygone which is only 11cm long.

For peace and quiet, the Red Mill House offers a wonderful escape. The owners are welcoming and happily share their knowledge with enthusiasm. So even if you aren’t a birder when you arrive, it’s not long before Andrew and Trish have you reaching for the binoculars.

Red Mill House Bed and Breakfast is at 11 Stewart St, Daintree, Far North Queensland, Australia. (www.redmillhouse.com.au).

(I was a guest of Red Mill House and Daintree River Wild Watch and thank them for their hospitality.)