22-28 August: Kangaroos that climb trees and other delights on the Atherton Tablelands

Author: Mrs A

Location: Atherton Tablelands, Queensland, Australia

Having now sold our house and being totally committed to our decision to leave Australia, we find ourselves living through a turmoil of emotions. On the one hand, we want to progress with our decision and all the multitude of tasks involved in our unravelling of more than two decades of life in Australia. On the other, we want to immerse ourselves in the sights, sounds and smells of the areas we are travelling through, to capture a lingering memory of regions we most likely will never see again.

Turning inland from Cairns, we climbed up onto the Atherton Tablelands, an area shrouded in misty cloud and drizzle as we arrived on Sunday afternoon. The Tablelands is a formerly volcanic region with rich soils and cooler temperatures than down on the coast. It is a big fruit and vegetable growing area.

While the volcanoes are now extinct, in both human and geological terms the volcanic activity is quite recent, and First Nations people have immortalised a major volcanic eruption in stories passed down through generations. One such story told by the Djirrbal and Ngadjon-jii First Nations people recalls when two freshly initiated youths broke a taboo and thereby offended the rainbow serpent, Aboriginal Australians’ most powerful and feared supernatural being. Despite being the middle of the day, the sky turned blackish-red, and the ground cracked and heaved. Then from it, a liquid spilled out. It engulfed the landscape, leaving a maar lake (Lake Eacham) as a legacy.

Geologists have dated the sediment layers within Lake Eacham and suggest the maar eruption that formed it occurred a little over 9,000 years ago, representing approximately 360 generations of people. We recognise and thank the Djirrbal and Ngadjon-jii First Nations people for their custodianship of the lands we stayed upon and visited this past week.

On our arrival the temperatures were in the late teens, and it was exciting to wear long sleeved tops and trousers without overheating. We set up camp beside Malanda Falls and headed straight back out. What better to do on a day such as this than to visit the Nerada Tearooms.

We have never disguised our love of a nice cup of tea, and here they had the added bonus of vegan churros for me and a Devonshire Cream Tea (scones, cream and jam) for Mark. Nerada is a tea plantation, specialising in sustainable farming without the use of pesticides – you can buy their tea in most Australian supermarkets.

Pots of tea and yummy food at the Nerada tea plantation. We even purchased a lovely cat teapot for our new home, wherever that may be!

There was an additional reason for our visit however – the little known Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroos, which we were told lived in the trees around the plantation.

You may be surprised to learn that Australia actually has two types of kangaroo that live in trees, the Lumholtz variety (only found in the Atherton Tablelands), and another the Bennett’s (only found in a small area of rainforest north of Daintree and south of Cooktown, which we were unable to find on our Cape Tribulation visit). There are actually many more varieties which live in Papua New Guinea.

When we had checked into our campground, the owner had told us this was a great place to see them, and that in 24 years only one group of customers had told her they had failed. So, fortified with tea and cake, we set off into the rain to attempt to find one.

It took us about 25 minutes of scouring the trees, walking up and down the road near to the tearooms before suddenly I spotted one. Having no idea what we were looking for, it was a surprise to find they are quite large, and more bear looking than their ground dwelling cousins, but still with the long tail. They evolved from Rock Wallabies around seven million years ago.

Very lucky to see a Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroo

For their size (about the size of a collie dog) they are really quite agile, climbing deftly amongst the branches and munching on several varieties of leaves.

For the Djirrbal and Ngadjon-jii First Nations people these were a significant food source as well as seen as a sacred animal. Being on the near-endangered list, they are no longer hunted and their habitat in this region is being conserved, so their numbers are slowly increasing

Love their black snouts and paws

We spent a wonderful hour watching these gorgeous creatures, gathering quite a crowd of other visitors around us as they stopped by to watch them as well. Definitely a memory to treasure and a bucket list item ticked off.

Our campsite beside Malanda Falls was ideally situated about a 15-20 minute drive away from everything we wanted to visit on the Tablelands. The Curtain Fig tree is situated in protected mabi-rainforest with a raised walkway around it, protecting its roots and was where we found ourselves early the following morning.

The tree itself is estimated to be more than 500 years old, and the ‘curtain’ is formed from its many roots which hang down from the main trunk.

Five hundred years or more have created this huge wonder of a tree

While seeing the tree is in itself a wonder, it is the somewhat rare opportunity to be elevated in rainforest that is also an attraction. The area is important habitat for many birds, tree kangaroos, Red-legged Pademelons (tiny rainforest kangaroos) and rare Musky Rat Kangaroos.

Spectacled and Pied Monarchs flit around the tree hunting for insects, and the thick tangle of roots and vines create many nesting opportunities

We spent some time listening to the forest, the rustling below the boardwalk, the flash of colour as birds flit between trees. It is not a great place for photography – not only does the camera love to focus on leaves and branches in the foreground, leaving only a blur of a bird in the distance, but the dull light makes it a real challenge to capture a sharp image. I gave it a good go though, and caught a few lovely birds.

A male Australasian Figbird in full song, supported by two females. The bright yellow male is most frequently seen up here. As we start heading south through Queensland their colouring will become duller and more olive-green.
Spotted Catbird – they only live in the wet tropics in far-north Queensland. Their call sounds just like a cat. There are three other types of Catbird in Australia, this is the only spotted one.

Malanda Falls is located right beside where we were staying, an attractive waterfall a feature of Johnstone River which winds its way through the rainforest. There are a couple of walks through the forest that we explored one afternoon.

Mr A heading off
Malanda Falls

While we saw some birds, they were very hard to see, pausing only briefly before disappearing off into the forest. The river is home to the Johnstone River Snapping Turtle, and there were plenty of these around as we looked from the viewing platforms. There are apparently Platypus living here as well, but they must have been sleeping on our visit.

Johnstone River Snapping Turtle

We saw a few shy Red-legged Pademelons.

A Red-legged Pademelon – a small kangaroo that lives in tropical rainforests. They are quite secretive and solitary, so we were lucky to spot this chap through the undergrowth
Such a challenge to capture through the undergrowth

One afternoon we drove out to the unusually named Mount Hypipamee Crater. This is the remains of a volcanic pipe which exploded 8000 years ago – so recent that its eruption also remains told in the stories of the local First Nations people.

Peering over the crater rim—58m down is the motionless, algal-green surface of the water, and 82m below that is rock-bottom.
Grey-headed Robin – like all robins, full of curiosity and character
Wompoo Fruit Dove feeding in the trees above before disappearing into the forest
Bower’s Shrikethrush hopping through the trees hunting insects
A Willie Wagtail pauses mid-chase, focused on its insect prey

We even spotted another Tree Kangaroo on this visit, right beside the path we were walking along.

Another Tree Kangaroo

The Upper Barron River runs through Mount Hypipamee National Park, with another walking trail taking you down to Dinner Falls, a series of three cascades cutting their way through the black volcanic granite. This is a popular place for a dip and natural waterfall massage during the summer months.

Dinner Falls cuts through the black granite
An ecosystem full of such rich diversity

Thursday was an important day – our second Covid-19 vaccination. We had booked in at Atherton Hospital for the injections and didn’t have to wait too long, there wasn’t a queue. As of today, 35% of adult Australians have been fully vaccinated, and an even lower number in Queensland which has been relatively Covid-free these past couple of years, outside of the capital city, Brisbane.

Getting the jab – can the Government now read my mind?
Both done ☑️

For us, we see the double vaccination as our passport out of lockdowns and the potential to get back out there in the world and travel. It’s a means of keeping us safe and hopefully out of hospital should we catch the virus. While most people we meet travelling are of the same mind as us – not keen to have their freedoms curbed any longer and excited to get back to touring Australia and the world – we have also met a number of hesitant people. They tend to be people who are unlikely to travel, who have never met anyone who has been unwell with Covid-19, let alone experienced the horror of someone passing away from the virus. We hope they can be persuaded to be inoculated for the greater community good – our government has pledged to open up more privileges once we are at 80% vaccinated, which feels a long way off.

On a couple of occasions during our six day stay we took ourselves over to Hasties Swamp National Park, a nearby wetland with a two storey bird hide, finding late afternoon to be the best time for action. It was a good opportunity for Mark to finally get out his spotting scope – the rainforest birds simply do not sit still long enough to get the scope lined up for a good look, but water birds tend to be a little less flighty.

We saw a large range of birds, the usual kingfishers, several varieties of honeyeater and Plumed and Wandering Whistling Ducks. The sound at the wetland was absolutely deafening, predominantly the loud honking of a huge flock of Magpie Geese which had noisily taken over one end of the water, constantly squabbling and flying around trying to find the optimum location to spend the night.

A Yellow-spotted Honeyeater in the late afternoon sun
An Australian Reed Warbler hunts for insects on the water’s edge
Pacific Black Ducks
A White-cheeked Honeyeater catches dinner…only to drop it…
A flock of Plumed Whistling Ducks flies across the wetlands looking for a place to roost
Plumed Whistling Ducks
Magpie Geese flying to their roosting site

On our final day, we took ourselves off to do a walk around Lake Eacham. While there are apparently Freshwater Crocodiles living here (smaller and less aggressive than their saltwater cousins), people can go swimming and kayaking in this small lake, and we saw a group of teenagers shrieking as they leaped into the cold water. We stuck to land for our visit and followed a trail around the water, through the dense rainforest of Crater Lakes National Park.

Lake Eacham is home to 180 species of birds – amongst others we spotted Spectacled Monarch, Large Billed Gerygone and Pale-yellow Robins

It was another bucket-list native I was rather keen to see; a Victoria’s Riflebird. We had visited the lake earlier in the week and constantly heard them calling, but none were to be seen. These birds are only found in this area of Australia, and are famous for their vibrant colouring and fabulous dance to attract females. I highly recommend you watch their dance moves on YouTube, they are incredible.

So half way around the lake, I heard a loud Riflebird-like squark from high up in the trees, and spotted a black-coloured bird hopping around in the branches. Yes! A Riflebird! I got set up with the camera, willing it to come closer.

Almost teasing me, a Riflebird peers out from high up on a tree
I thought this was as good as my photos would get – I even captured the fabulous bright yellow mouth and turquoise green tail…

The gorgeous bird was lifting up pieces of bark and finding insects and grubs to eat. I watched it methodically work its way along the trunk until suddenly a particularly tasty looking snack dropped from its grasp and fell to the ground just a metre or two from me, swiftly followed by the Riflebird. I held my breath, willing my camera to focus on the right thing as he found his food and flew up to an old tree trunk just metres in front of me, providing a perfect view of his glistening head, throat and chest feathers. Just incredible.

Victoria’s Riflebird
Victoria’s RIflebird

I was so chuffed to have been rewarded with this special moment, an absolutely wonderful end to our visit to the Tablelands. I was only disappointed that Mark missed the show as he had walked on ahead of me. Thank goodness I was able to capture some photographs to share with him.

We’ve spent a magical three weeks exploring this rainforest-filled tropical north Queensland, longer than we have ever done before. Rewarded with incredible bird and animal sightings, we feel so privileged to have been able to take our time and immerse ourselves in this special environment. But now it is time to turn our noses south, and start making our way down the east coast. We have a bit of celebrating to be done in Noosa with friends!

30 June & 1 July: Goodbye east coast – hello to the Savannah Way

Author: Mr A

Location: Palm Cove and Cairns, then Gunnawarra, Queensland

Saturday: Our last few days in Cairns have been all about getting prepared to leave behind the relative civilisation of the east coast and prepare to drive across the top of Australia. Today was no exception, with a power shop at what will be our last big supermarket for a few weeks, and maybe up to a month, depending which way we head.

We also managed to squeeze in what will undoubtably be our last fine dining experience for some time. Our fellow Zone owners Wendy and Frank had driven over to see us, and swap tall tales of our respective trips. We went back to the same place in Palm Cove (Choc Dee Thai) we ate at a couple of nights ago, but it was so good compared to the “modern Australian” predictable menus of the rest of the restaurant strip there.

Sunday: It was pack up and leave time, but not before we crammed in one last market, all of 100 metres walk away.Mrs A managed to score some lovely earrings and a necklace made by three local jewellers, and two dresses beautifully modelled here.It was with a good degree of excitement that we hitched up and said goodbye to the Coral Sea as the next ocean we are likely to see is the Timor Sea, up in the Gulf.

We plan to follow what’s called the “Savannah Way”, a well driven route by grey nomads and other travellers heading across to the west coast. At 3,500km (2,175 miles) the Savannah Way is a decently long road, even by Australian standards. From Cairns the road takes no prisoners from the get go, heading up a windy, steep route to the Atherton Tablelands. Then it’s a haul across to Normanton, a small town up near the Gulf, then across to Katherine in the Northern Territory and then finally to Broome.

Broome didn’t really wow us last year, so we think we will turn south for Alice Springs before then, and head out to the West MacDonnell Range, then head back over to the east coast, emerging around Brisbane at the end of August.

Well that’s the plan anyway. As they say, no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and in the Australian outback there are plenty of those. They can take many forms; a stray rock that comes through the windscreen or pierces the side of your tyre, corrugations that shake bits off you and your things, and a pretty harsh climate that in winter will see huge variations in daily temperatures. We are expecting to modify the plan as the trip unfolds.

We called back in to our favourite store on the tablelands, the Humpy, for some last minute fruit, vegetables and other local treats, before deciding to press on to a place called Pinnarendi Station. This is another working farm that is making some money from the passing caravans by offering sites with power, water and even meals. Good on them. It’s great to see so many people having a go at something new, seeing an opportunity and investing in some basic facilities for travellers.

There are also locally made jams and other products on offer here – I bought myself some home made peanut butter ice cream for dessert.

25-26 June: Hiking and biking around Atherton

Author: Mr A

Location: Atherton Tablelands

Monday: With yet another grey day looming we dragged ourselves out of the cosy Zone before we were tempted to cancel all activities and just veg out. We drove the sort distance down Herbeton, a small town with a strong history of mining. The town’s museum told the story of how tin had been dredged there until the 80’s. Mining doesn’t enthrall me but suitably educated we tackled one of the walks around the area. If only the clouds had lifted, which they did when we had finished, it would have been great views across the range.

Tuesday: The next day was yet another grey and drizzly start, and again we forced ourselves out, this time on the bikes. There’s a rail trail leading almost from the campsite into Atherton, so we slithered our way along that as the rain got harder. It was time to beat a tactical withdrawal to a coffee shop and pile some hot chocolates and cakes down us. Suitably fortified we decided to carry on as the rain had stopped.It was actually a great ride initially through a countryside of rolling hills, then we headed round a loop on some tarmac and back to base via a series of local mountain bike trails through the rainforest, ticking off just over 35km.A curry was called for after all that exertion, so our fellow Zoner Ken drove us into Atherton and we we finished our stay here with a great feed. We have really enjoyed the tablelands, apart from the weather, but tomorrow its time to head back down to the coast.

23-24 June: A wet weekend on the tablelands

Author: Mrs A

Location: Atherton & Yungaburra

We awoke Saturday morning to a new phenomena for us – drizzle! We’ve not seen weather like this for a long time, and it was quite a novelty.

Today was market day in the village of Yungaburra, about a 20 minute drive from Atherton. Diving there, the scenery looks like parts of the UK, but with wider roads and tropical crops such as sugarcane nestled alongside the paddocks of cattle. The flocks of gangly legged Saurus Cranes feasting in the sorghum fields were also not quite fitting with the British Isles!

Arriving at Yungaburra, we saw sweet little buildings and flower lined streets, more akin to an English village, not your typical Australian settlement.The market was great too. Alongside the stalls of fresh-from-the-farm vegetables and herbs were bakers, jewellers, artists (including musicians, painters, woodworkers, ceramic workers and potters), massage therapists, plants of all varieties, flowers and even fertilised eggs, chicks and chickens for sale. It all felt very authentically country.

We spent quite a bit of time there, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoyed some delicious food, chatting to some of the locals as we sheltered from the rain.

A short walk from our campground concluded our day as the rain continued throughout the afternoon. We discovered the pathway up to a nearby ‘mountain’ starts just metres from the back of where we parked up in the campground. We didn’t walk all the way up to the lookout – the low cloud would have blocked any views anyhow.

Sunday morning started in much the same way, with the occasional dry patch between the showers. Tassie decided she would take me on a walk, and bravely strolled up the same path Mark and I had taken last night. Again, we didn’t get too far before Tassie decided it was time to return to the Zone. She always amazes me with her courage – as a 14 year old predominantly indoor/garden cat, she had not really travelled much before last September, but now she’s been right across Australia. She always knows where the safe Zone is, and keeps her wits about her, even when being dive bombed by birds…they don’t seem to understand she’s a lover not a catcher!There are plenty of birds here. We have spotted pale yellow robins, firetails, finches galore, and lovely purple and green fruit doves feeding on the mandarins on and below the tree beside where we are camped. The little black and white Willy Wagtail is the feisty one, always flying at Tassie and frightening her back indoors. I guess he’s met some hungrier cats in his lifetime.

As the rain settled in we decided to go for a drive, heading for a local dairy with a good reputation for cheese and milk chocolate. Being dairy intolerant, it wasn’t really my first choice of location, but I was happy to go along – happy husband, happy life after all!

As we drove along, we spotted a sign to a local national park I had read about. It contains around 220 of Australia’s 700 bird species, so is extremely ecologically important. And as a bonus for us, it had a two storey under cover bird hide so we could try and spot some while remaining dry. We called in for a look.

Hasties Swamp did not disappoint. The first thing that grabbed our attention was the noise. Literally hundreds of Whistling Ducks floated along the shoreline, all whistling away, and so beautiful. Many other varieties of duck and water bird were there too, as well as a Little Kingfisher (yes, a kingfisher that is, urm, little). We stayed longer than we expected, watching as little dramas unfolded and dissipated among the flocks, and as pairs of pink eared ducks (which have zebra patterned feathers) swam in circles in pairs catching their food. Just fascinating.Soon the cheese was calling, and off we went to the farm where Mr A tried some cheese and purchased a delicious (according to him) blue.From here we drove a short way to another little national park – home to the Curtain Fig. This tree is a survivor in a small patch of remaining rainforest which was saved from the saw in the 1800s by the rocky surface, not ideal for grazing. It is protected by a raised boardwalk, and pretty magnificent.

We returned to camp for a late lunch and an afternoon of planning our next section of trip. Next Sunday will see us leaving the coast and heading back across the Atherton Tablelands on an adventure to the Northern Territory over the Savannah Way.

21-22 June: An introduction to the delights of the Atherton Tablelands

Author: Mr A

Location: Cooktown to Mareeba then Atherton

Thursday: For the first time since we left Sydney in March, I pointed our nose south. Cooktown would be as far north as we would go on this trip, saving the raw beauty and corrugations of Cape York for another time.

So on the drive from Cooktown to Mareeba we were mostly retracing our steps, and was nearly the last drive we would ever do. The sides of the valley narrowed and steepened right to the little bit of hard shoulder, and Catherine suddenly shouts out “COW!!!!!”

There it was right on the hard shoulder, looking all wide eyed and about to bolt in front of us, as it had nowhere else to go. Coming the other way was a huge road train. It is moments like this that make outback touring so…..interesting. I swerved out a bit, the sway control kicked in and kept me from fishtailing, and the road train answered with a big horn, he had nowhere to go either. Somehow the three of us managed to all pass each other without touching. Jeez that was close.

I tend to drive around 80-85km/hour on most roads. If I had been going any faster I think this blog would have come to an untimely end. I will continue to drive below the speed limit with an eye in the rear view camera and move over as soon as I safely can let other vehicles past.Mareeba didn’t tempt us in to town, and it had a very uninspiring campsite as well, so after the using the time to clean sheets, clothes, truck and Zone we decided to head off to Atherton, the main town up here on the tablelands.

Friday: We decided to divert on the way, to check out Australia’s “Distillery of the year”. I was intrigued. The sun had yet to strike the yard arm, so some may say a trifle early for strong liqueur, but what the heck.

The Mount Uncle Distillery sits in the middle of a banana plantation, and a farm that grows most of the ingredients for their products. They distill a range of spirits and liqueurs, so we decided to taste the vodka, two of the gins and the whiskey. Did you know that gin is vodka with juniper added? We didn’t! And these guys are adding a range of other locally grown botanicals such as mint and myrtle. They were all delicious, we would have brought some whiskey but at $170 for the cheapest…..pass.

We were told by the lady presenting them that they made a whiskey from a single barrel which has just one won “a double gold medal in Melbourne, competing against over 150 others”. I was intrigued so tried to check on their website – apart from a bunch of typos and repeated content there was no reference to the award.

A Google search revealed a Facebook video with no content whatsoever. If you are going to ask customers to pay $500 for a bottle of something, you would expect a bit of collateral to be available. But no…apparently a Chinese actor walked in last month and brought 14 bottles! Perhaps he was taken with the name – “The BBC ” – full name “The Big Black Cock”.Moving on, we called in at our first fruit and veggie shop on the tablelands. If you’re not au fait with the area then you should know it is famous for its basalt soils and temperate climate that encourages an incredible range of produce. Almost everything seems to grow up here!

Anyway, we sampled locally gown macadamias, peanuts and chocolates and came away with a goody bag containing not one fruit or vegetable…..because we had found out a local market was on tomorrow.

After much debate, we had decided to go for a Big 4 caravan park in Atherton. We aren’t usually a big fan of these places but this one is an absolute cracker. We have a huge grassy site looking onto a forest, with birds everywhere, clean facilities and a nearby rail train into town (which of course we had to explore)….….And then…we spot another Zone parked by us. So we all introduce ourselves and it turns out the Zoner (Ken, owner of #101) was someone I had already previously messaged to meet up in Cairns, as I had seen he had just picked up his van.

Drinks were called for, and much comparing of notes. Every time we meet another Zoner they always turn out to be lovely people. What is about the product or company that attracts such likeable people? To be honest we haven’t met many people on the road around happy hours that we would go out of our way to see again. But Zoners…always good 🙂

17 June: Up into the north Queensland tablelands

Author: Mr A

Location: From the Daintree to Mount Carbine, on the Atherton Tablelands

Saturday: We packed up camp and pottered down the road towards the Daintree ferry, travelling pretty gingerly, as there are a heap of blinds bends. A motor home that was charging round one of them, clearly piloted by a psychic driver who could see round corners, clipped our wing mirror. Luckily there was barely a scratch on it, it does reinforce for me though my motto of “drive assuming Harry Nutter is coming round the next blind corner”.

Our route today was taking us back through Mossman and hoorah the Saturday market was on. A quick power shop for fruit and veggies scored us some great finds. For instance the locally gown tropical fruit called a soursop, a new one on us but apparently similar to custard apples. Then we found a stall run by a goat farmer, selling all sorts of meats – we sampled and brought some salami – well our friends are setting up a goat farm for bloodstock down in NSW so we need to support the industry!We finished up with a whole range of other fresh locally grown fruit and veg, so with our fridge crammed to capacity, we then turned off the coast road we had followed for so long and headed inland, up onto the north end of the Atherton Tablelands. We watched the scenery change dramatically as we climbed up the range, the Cruiser doing its usual impeccable job of dragging the 3 tons of loaded up Zone up the steep climb. Our destination was a place called Bustard Downs, a working cattle farm with some camp spots we would stay the night on. As we drove down onto the property we were immediately struck by the amount of birds around.When we met the owner she said around 150 different types have been logged by local birders, so we set off to explore. Even the cattle were beautiful!

Tassie was very happy to be surrounded by such a grand space as well.Only one other caravan was there on the whole of the property, well until 6.30 pm when it was pitch black, and we are in full dinner prep mode for a nasi goreng feast, with me wearing a clear plastic glove on one hand as I was cutting up the turmeric (it stains your skin yellow)..and there was knock on the door. I opened to find a lady at the door, another van had pulled up right next to us. They had been delayed on the road after hitting a kangaroo and she was asking me where the camp office was.

It was only afterwards I said to Catherine ‘I wonder what she thought when I answered the door wearing a yellow stained transparent glove and my fluffy dressing gown?’…