"Arctracer" Letters

Laura, Split Rock, Cooktown, and Atherton Tablelands, Nov 2001

Before selling our 1990 Holden station wagon we took a little tour of the country north and west of Cairns. In three days we drove about 1000 kilometers.

We started by heading north to Cooktown along the coast. We saw many termite mounds and areas which had been burned. Both seemed to be very common. The mango season is here. There were well-kept mango orchards and in some places wild mangoes all over the road. We were surprised to see a coconut plantation, the first we'd seen in a long time. Coconuts require much manual labor, and we wonder how it can be profitable here. We stopped at a second-hand store where Jerry found 12 of Arthur Ransome's books. We read "Swallows and Amazons" long ago but haven't read the others. We couldn't refuse the good deal, so now we have more books on the boat. Our catamaran friends will shudder at the thought of the extra weight.

We drove around posh Port Douglas where Clinton was vacationing on September 11th and where we've heard Bill Gates and Greg Norman have taken their megayachts. From Port Douglas we drove to Mossman. When we parked at another second-hand store, (luckily without any books we wanted,) we saw a tree with many Metallic Starling nests. From the town of Mossman we drove to the popular tourist site of Mossman Gorge where we walked about 3 km through lush rainforest. We felt VERY lucky to get a very good look at a Buff- breasted Paradise Kingfisher because we learned from our "Field Guide to Australian Birds" that it perches in the dense foliage of the rainforest and remains motionless and silent. The book also says that "it is best seen soon after its arrival from New Guinea, early in November, when it is in its brightest plumage, the longtail plumes not yet stained or damaged by nest digging." There were quite a few people near the gorge, but we didn't encounter many walking around the track away from the river. Some of the fig trees along the track were huge.

We got a one-way ticket on the Daintree River cable ferry as our intention was to drive to Cooktown along the coastal road. At one lookout we took a picture of the mouth of the Daintree. Then we stopped at a rainforest tower on the Cape Tribulation Road and discovered that there are about 50 cassowaries between the Daintree River and Cape Tribulation. Although we kept a close lookout for them, we didn't see any. They have done a great job in this area of putting speed bumps across the roads so that people cannot possibly drive too fast in the places where the cassowaries cross the roads. Perhaps Mission Beach could adopt the same policy. Much of the traffic down there didn't slow down for the "Cassowary" signs.

When we arrived at the end of the paved road at Cape Tribulation beach we asked some of the tour operator drivers what the road was like to Cooktown. They all said that it was very steep and that a 4-wheel drive vehicle was necessary. Consequently, we turned around and drove back to Mossman to take the longer but safer route. On the way we stopped at an ice cream parlor at an estate with many different kinds of fruit trees. We sampled four kinds of delicious ice cream including chocolate sapote, macadamia, apricot and wattleseed. We tasted for the first time a South American fruit called something like "realinia." In Mossman we bought groceries for dinner later at a campsite and headed towards Mt. Molloy with Cooktown 255 km away. Driving through the Mobray State Forest we saw several forest fires, which burned all the dry grass and underbrush but usually left the big trees relatively unharmed. One would have to be careful where one built a house in this remote area. We also saw some lychee orchards. Signs along the road north to Lakeland warned of unfenced roads and said "Beware of Stock." We had to stop a few times to wait for cattle to get out of the road. This evening we were the only campers at the Mt. Carbine Campground. The only other things in the town were a pub and a small store/petrol station. We think the only people in town were the proprietors of these places and the caretakers at a closed tungsten mine. We saw rainbow lorikeets and Magpies that evening as the sun went down.

As we headed farther north on the 9th we saw numerous termites nests, calves and cattle in the road, feral pigs, cattle grids across the road and an occasional sign to a cattle station. We saw no houses, and only a few long dirt roads (driveways?) leading away from the paved "Developmental Highway." From "Bob's Lookout" we saw lots of dry, nearly barren land with dry streambeds. There were occasional signs such as "Kangaroo Crossing," "Caution: Road trains 50 m long" (these are trucks pulling 2-3 trailers for those of you who haven't heard of one), and "Beware of Cattle." We saw Brahman cattle and many pieces of retread tires all along the way to Lakeland. When we reached the Palmer River (a goldrush site in bygone years) it was dry. The roadhouse at the bridge was made of slate that is still mined in the area. They only sold instant coffee, but we filled our mugs. We saw a wallaby, several wedge-tailed eagles and many other buzzards and hawks. These birds clean up the carrion as the Tasmanian Devils do in Tasmania. From Mt. Carbine to Lakeland we only met 7 cars and 2 large trucks. (There wasn't much of anything different to see after a while, so why not count the vehicles.) When we arrived in Lakeland at 8:15 am we turned north on a gravel road to Split Rock to see the Aboriginal Paintings on huge boulders. There was a good deal of erosion on the sides of the road. The road was one of the roughest we've ever been on and we couldn't drive very fast, but the locals in their Utes zoomed past. We saw a couple of dams (waterholes for livestock) on the way that had water, but most of the dams and streams were VERY dry.

We walked up into the hills at "Split Rock" and saw some of the best Aboriginal Paintings and Carvings we'd seen in Australia. Some of my favorite drawings included a turtle with kangaroo and human footprints beside it and longtoms (garfish) on the other side of them. After seeing three different sets of paintings, we decided to skip some that could only be viewed after a long walk in the open on this VERY hot and humid day. The ones we didn't see were hand prints, and we'd seen some of those in Tasmania. With Laura only about 15 km north we decided to see the town. One of the signs on the way said "Rough Surface." We thought the entire gravel road should have that warning, but this section was indeed even more "washboardy." "Heavy Vehicle Detour" signs were beside several wooden bridges where trucks had to ford the streams. There wasn't much water this time of year, but we wonder what they do in the "wet" season. In Laura we bought cold drinks at the grocery store and talked with the owner. She has run the store for 21 years and before that lived in Coen (246 km north) and Wiepa (west) - even more remote places. She told us that the school has about 10 students now. There appeared to be houses built by the government for the Aboriginal community, and there was a cafJ and a campground in town.

Upon arrival back in Lakeland we stopped at a cafe for lunch and took a picture of one of the many red-flowering trees which are in blossom now across all of tropical Australia. We bought 500 grams of coffee that is grown near Lakeland, but haven't tried it yet.

On the fairly good gravel road from Lakeland to Cooktown we saw for the first time a Black-necked Stork, and a Comb-crested Jacana walking on lilypads. The Jacana had really long toes - the weirdest we've ever seen on a bird. We stopped at a lookout to see the Black Mountains, covered in granite boulders that appear black from the algae that grows on them.

Finally in Cooktown, the farthest north town on the coast, we photographed Nina where Cook beached his ship the Endeavour and Jerry at Cook's statue. From the foreshore we went up Grassy Hill to see the lighthouse and some of the many reefs of the Great Barrier Reef not far from shore. We can certainly understand how Cook ran onto a reef with his Endeavour without charts. We feel fortunate that he charted the coastline for us. We also had a good vantage point to see the anchorage in the Endeavour River from Grassy Hill. We bought groceries for dinner and drove back over the dirt road to Lakeland. We stopped at Keatings Lagoon and saw some water birds, but none new-to-us. We saw seven wallabies in a grassy clearing, and were reminded of looking for deer in the fields of Vermont at dusk. We discovered that the caretaker of the campground in Lakeland raised ducks and sold their eggs. We hadn't had duck eggs since leaving the States so we bought half a dozen. These were about the size of large hen eggs and didn't taste much different. We've had huge ones before from friends in the States that tasted very differently. Four Royal Spoonbills and lots of geese flew over as we set up our tent. After showers and dinner we got to bed early, planning an early start the next day.

At 5:15 am we were back on the road. An "adventure tour" group with 7 tents got up early and were about done with their breakfast by this time. We saw several wallabies including a mother with her offspring right behind her, and we saw a fairly large kangaroo. Our guess is that it was a grey kangaroo, but we don't know which types live in this area. Anyway, it was much larger than the wallabies. At 7:00 in Mt. Carbine there was nothing open yet so we couldn't get any coffee or tea. Finally we got our coffee mugs filled in Mt. Molloy, again with instant. I also got a "mince" pie. (The Australians only use the word mince for ground beef, but they do use the word hamburger for the burger made with mince).

In the REAL town of Mareeba they were having a Saturday market, so we found ourselves looking at beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables, crafts, freshly cut flowers and used books. We couldn't buy any fresh food because the car would be too hot for it during the day. Fresh flowers would have looked very attractive on our table, but again the car would be too hot for them to survive. Luckily there were no books that we were interested in, so we didn't buy a thing. It was enjoyable looking at all the arts and crafts though.

After leaving Mareeba we saw some neat birds in a lagoon - 8 Royal Spoonbills, 2 Glossy Ibis, and 2 Black-Winged Stilts. There were also lots of ducks, some pelicans, and some egrets there.

We had seen a beautiful picture of the water-filled Crater at Hypipamee National Park and another picture of Dinner Falls so we went up into the rainforest to see them. On the way we saw many pretty purple blossoms (the color of lilacs) on the jakaranda trees. We saw tree kangaroo signs along the road, but saw none of these unusual tree-dwellers. We enjoyed the walk, seeing not only the crater and the falls, but also a Golden Whistler - a very pretty yellow and black bird. The crater was neat, but it was too steep and deep from the lookout provided for us to get a decent picture. However, we did get a picture of the falls at the end of the dry season. We then toured Atherton and Ravenshoe (pronounced "Raven's hoe") before taking the one-lane Tully Falls Road. At the end of the 35 km road we could see, far below, the place where Hilary and Larry started their whitewater rafting trip. It was beautiful to look at, but being on such a high cliff made us a bit nervous. We took a short walk to see Tully Falls, but there sure wasn't much water there! The walk was nice though, as are most of the rainforest walks we've taken.

Once off the Tully Falls Road we took the SCENIC route to Millaa Millaa through the Maalan State Forest. It was an absolutely beautiful drive, but the road was so narrow and steep that Nina couldn't enjoy it too much. It was basically another one lane road, but we thought this one would have more traffic on it than the Tully Falls Road. As it turned out this wasn't the case, even on a Sunday afternoon. After viewing 20 huge, new-looking wind turbines at the "Windmill Farm" advertised in lots of brochures, we entered another rainforest. The Millaa Millaa Falls is famous and is used for television and print ads, so we decided to see if there was any water there. There was some, but it wasn't nearly as magnificent as it appears in tourist brochures. They must take those pictures during the wet season. We saw a Forest Kingfisher, another first, and noticed LOTS of impatiens. These flowers reminded us of those we saw in the El Yunque rainforest in Puerto Rico with Dorothy & Dan, then Hilary, then Mom. Spring must be the time for them here, as we hadn't seen them until this trip.

From Millaa Millaa falls we went to Malanda Falls to look for platypus. A walk there has a platypus viewing platform. We think we were there too early in the afternoon and didn't see one, but we did see an Australian Brush Turkey fly across the river and we saw about 20 turtles swimming around in the slow- moving stream.

On our way back through Atherton we bought some groceries, as we weren't sure we'd get to the supermarkets in the Cairns area before they closed. We then stopped at a farm that was selling vegetables. In the hope that we'll be sailing south soon, we bought 20 kg of potatoes for $10, 10 kg of onions for $8 and 3 pumpkins for $1. It seemed like a great deal to us. Now we just hope that they last long enough in this warm and humid weather for us to consume them all. There were numerous orchards of mango trees between Mareeba and Kuranda.

Back at Yorkey's Knob just at sunset we saw Scaly-Breasted Lorikeets which we hadn't seen before. We took all of our vegetables and camping gear out of the car and loaded a trolley to get it back to "Arctracer." Because of the advertisement in Saturday's paper, our mobile phone had messages from four people interested in our 3.4 meter "tinny" (aluminum dinghy) and its 28 hp outboard motor. We sold it the next day to the first caller. We guess we had the right price on it as another gentleman called a couple of times to see if the first person had bought it.

It was a good trip, covering over 1000 kilometers in just three days. We got a good look at the top end of the coast and a bit of the outback. From Cooktown to the tip of Cape York is another 300 miles, but almost nobody lives up there and there are no paved roads. We may see that region by boat, but this is as far as our car can go. Our trusty Holden has now carried us the full length of Australia's east coast from Tasmania's southern tip, and taken us into the interior a bit too. We will sell it here in Cairns rather than shuttle it south with the boat. Now we are turning to boat projects, and preparing to sail south.

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