24-26 August: A weekend in Agnes Water and 1770

Author: Mr A

Location: Seventeen-Seventy, Queensland

Friday: Leaving Cania Gorge behind we headed towards the coast, our destination being the tiny settlement of Seventeen Seventy, so named after it was discovered that Captain Cook made his second landfall in Australia here in…that’s right…1770.

We arrived in time to get the bikes off and explore, it was a short ride down the road and this spectacular view confronted us.So good to be back by the ocean again, with those lovely smells of the sea air, the calm waters of the Coral Sea exuding a tranquility that we just soaked up, over a cold beer.I did smile though on seeing this cafe perched in a car park, next to the road, when the other side of the building was…..…this view! I don’t think 1770 has quite made it into 2018 – and that’s part of its appeal.

Saturday: Again we were off on the bikes down to the beach at the back of our caravan park, then a great ride along the sand to Agnes Water a few kilometres down the beach.This was a little less sleepy, with a few shops and restaurants, one of which we had been told was going to be offering an Indian focused menu tonight. A booking was made – this little business is clearly making an effort to do something a bit different. A range of speciality teas lined the walls that almost rivalled our selection in the Zone!

We pottered back to our camp down the bike path and spent a very productive afternoon organising more of our upcoming US trip and being taken on an exploration by Princess Tassie. Then it was back to Cafe Discovery for their take on Indian food. A beef vindaloo and chicken tikka masala went down a treat.

Sunday: Rain in the night! So exciting! We haven’t heard that soothing pitter patter on the roof for so long. We made it down to the markets and back via the lookout in 1770 before the thunderstorm started in earnest. A great little market as well, lots of locals and grey nomads alike picking up these fresh fruit and veg so totally absent from any supermarkets we had seen for weeks.We decided to brave the weather and headed out for a walk, so glad we did. The first short walk we did through a paper bark forest was magical with the sun making the dripping vegetation just sparkle. Then it was a 6km coastal walk, although the weather then closed in and it really started to throw it down, complete with thunder and lightning.Back to the park and a quiet Sunday night (when isn’t it nowadays!) and plans made for our departure tomorrow.

Well done Agnes Water and Seventeen-Seventy.

13-15 August: Crossing the Plenty (of corrugations) Highway

Author: Mr A

Location: Across the Plenty and Donohue Highways – from the Northern Territory into Queensland

Monday: It was a chilly pack up as we left Alice and headed north to the start of the Plenty Highway. Cutting straight across the north end of the Simpson Desert, its a pretty wild and wooly place to travel. But we were as prepared as we know how, and get better as we amass more experience of remote travel.The first part of the road was very civilised bitumen. Then the dirt started. The corrugations weren’t too bad though and we made good time, pulling into our camp by mid afternoon at a huge cattle station (it was 2,750 square kilometres – about the same size as Argentina) that offered a patch of dirt and toilets. Jervois Station didn’t exactly seem to be making an effort to earn their camp fees, and we realised a bit too late we could have saved $15 and just pulled off to the side of the road!

We did take a short stroll up the river, there was not much to see so it was back to our cosy Zone and a lovely veggie Pad Thai.(Photo of our local river name for Jenny Charlton née Marshall – mum/mum-in-law)

Tuesday: The road almost immediately deteriorated as we headed off, and the corrugations were kept company by large patches of bull-dust (deep sand). But we took our time, and kept stopping to check over everything inside and out. We travelled through what is called the Mitchell Grass Downs, Australia’s version of the American Prairies. It looks dry and unsupporting of life, but apparently is home to a multitude of birds, reptiles and mammals, uniquely suited to this biosystem.

All went well and by early afternoon we were again at our planned camp for the night, another cattle station catering for weary travellers.Tobermory Station was a lot more welcoming, with a young lady from Norfolk checking us in. She and her husband had decided to spend a few months here with their children, helping out on their trip around Australia. Its great to chat to these people, to see so many couples with small children taking the opportunity to do something a bit different.

This station has the the luxury of GRASS campsites! It feels almost strange after weeks of red dust underfoot. Even Miss T decided she would venture out.We spent the afternoon checking over everything on the car and van, and nothing we can see has fallen apart, amazing given the hammering on the road, On the Toyota one of the after market driving lights had come lose and worn a hole in the bull bar…that’s it.On the Zone nothing we can see is amiss, and it is pretty much dust free inside. A far cry from some of the Plenty Highway travel experiences we have heard about and read!

Wednesday: We made it back into Queensland!We were treated to a fabulous viewing of a pair of huge Wedge-Tailed Eagles on our journey through the last piece of the journey, along the Donohue Highway – the Queensland end of the Plenty.This was our longest dirt road trip, and to get to the other end with no major dramas was a good feeling. For those in the UK, this is the equivalent of driving coast to coast across the widest section of England and Wales on farm tracks!Now came the clean up! A lot of red dust needed to be disapeared.Three hours later all was done, the sun was setting and it was time for the pub. Of course it was the usual predictable menu options (steak or chicken “parmy”, and awful wine and beer options). But you expect that in outback Australia where there is a lack of competition and a customer base that doesn’t seem to want anything different.

Catherine ordered a “small” steak, me a medium.Frightening…It was cooked well though and we definitely fulfilled our red meat quota for the month!

7-8 August: Watarrka National Park for more hiking

Author: Mrs A

Location: Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon)

Wednesday: It has been a good 8 or 9 years since we last visited this part of Australia, back then flying in to Alice Springs, hiring a Troopie (Landrover made up to include beds and a kitchen) and whizzing down to this area for a long weekend. It’s good to come back and visit at a more leisurely pace and with all our own gear.

We left Uluru by 9.30am and headed off towards Watarrka National Park, a good 300km away. A red dune side lunch spot gave us a break en route, and we arrived at the Kings Canyon Resort shortly before 3pm.

We have a fabulous site with incredible views across the national park, looking out over the 100 metre high red walls of the canyon. We got set up and jumped in the car to do a late afternoon walk in the national park to stretch the legs.We opted for a short and peaceful walk along the dry King’s Creek, an informative track with several birds accompanying us, particularly this ever-so-cute Dusky Grasswren a perky little desert dweller that didn’t seem to mind hopping around the rocks near us.The national park is home to more than 600 species of plant, 10% of which are extremely rare and date back to the dinosaurs. This area has the highest diversity of fauna in any of Australia’s arid zones.

We returned to camp for showers and to enjoy the sunset.The resort has a pub and restaurant so we decided to give it a try for dinner. Unlike so many places we have come across on this trip, this actually had a decent choice of beverages – including Fat Yak and our local Manly, Sydney tipple, Four Pines beer.

We both had some extremely delicious and perfectly cooked kangaroo steaks, jacket potato and salad. Highly recommended.

Thursday: A morning of getting our sheet and towel washing done was accompanied by a bacon and egg sandwich for breakfast – a fine start to the day. By 10.30am all jobs done and a warm breeze promising to expedite our drying we headed back to the National Park. Today we had chosen to do the Kings Canyon Rim walk, a total of about 8km walking when all the side trips are included.

The hike starts with a 100 metre climb up around 500 steps. I was pleased my legs had somewhat of a warmup this morning running around the campground washing machines and lines!Once you’re up the top of the walls it all gets a lot friendlier, with a lot of red rock hopping over the ancient fossilised sand dunes and sea bed. There is plenty of evidence of the area’s distant past, with fossilised ripples in the rock (they call it ripple-rock, of course) and evidence of the layers of silica in the rock from the drifting sand dunes.The landscape is unlike anything else, the beehive like structures stretching out into the horizon. I found it interesting to learn that the rock here is all actually bright white sandstone – the red comes from a fungi which grows on the rock and through a chemical reaction allows the red sands from the surrounding arid area to stick to it, hence creating the bright red colour which practically glows in the sunlight.While not busy, we were certainly not alone on this walk, several other hikers following on the same trajectory – mostly French, a few Chinese and Australians.

The Garden of Eden is a part of the Canyon with permanent water, attracting birds and harbouring many of the ancient plants, with cycads lining the waterway. It was a diversion along the track that few took, but Mark and I enjoyed a break in the cool shade beside the water.After completing the circuit we returned for a relaxed afternoon, Miss Tassie rolling in the red sand and needing a lot of brushing (which she loves!). I suspect the two events might be linked. Are we being manipulated by a Burmese cat?

Another fine sunset over the George Gill Range completed our day. Off on a new adventure tomorrow.

6-7 August: Uluru National Park

Author: Mr A

Location: Yulara & Uluru National Park

Monday: Riding The Rock!

Catherine had heard that you could now cycle around the rock – one of the many changes since climbing it has been finally banned.

We lost no time after setting up camp to throw the bikes on the back of the car and head into Uluru National Park. It’s only 20km away by road, but we wanted to avoid the testosterone fuelled drivers who are often behind the wheel of a big four wheel drive for the first time after a rental from Alice. Combine those folk with the foreign tourists who have forgotten which side of the road we drive on here (as we encountered driving into the park just as one was driving the wrong way down the park check-in road!)…No…a few minutes loading the bikes was worth it.We left for our ride from the Cultural Centre and followed our noses as there were no signs for a cycling path, but there was this rather large rock to head for.We joined the pain path around the rock and checked the signage, it only showed walkers, but there were bike hire companies around and plenty of tyre marks, so off we went.Riding a bike always brings a grin to our faces wherever we are, but to be riding along under this brilliant blue sky, dwarfed by this towering red rock…breathtaking. We just couldn’t stop ogling this magnificent scenery. Neither of us are in any way spiritual, but we both felt this to be the closest we could get, just sitting quietly looking up at this massive granite monolith towering over us.

Miss Tassie also enjoyed the awesomeness of the Red Centre on an explore of the dunes near where we camped. When was the last time you saw a Burmese cat in front to Uluru, eh?

Tuesday: Visiting Kata Tjuta

A 45km drive in the morning, minus the caravan, took us to Kata Tjuta, which European explorers renamed The Olgas. This area contains an unusual geological formation of a series of large domed granite rocks, which in this crystal clear desert air, looks so spectacular against the almost perennially deep blue sky.The short walk we did here was one of the most enjoyable we have done from a scenic perspective for ages. It’s called the Valley of the Winds walk, and takes you up through the domes and in a 7km circuit.(Below, a friendly Grey Shrike-Thrush which accompanied us on our walk)We could easily have spent a few more days here, but we are now on a bit of deadline, given we have lost a couple of weeks from our itinerary. So soon it was time to pack up and move on.

27-31 July: Solo in Berry Springs

Author: Mrs A

Location: Berry Springs, Northern Territory

Friday-Monday

I found I am still capable of procrastinating when needing to do some work on the laptop. I did all sorts of things, like wash the car, wash the caravan, wash the roof of the caravan, clean out the kitchen drawers, defrost the freezer, even supermarket shopping…but eventually I needed to get sat down at the laptop and do the analysis I had promised myself. The good news is, that once I got stuck into it, I really enjoyed the work and reminded myself why it has been my lifelong career!

I decided to reward my good behaviour with a visit to Berry Springs Nature Park, after all, this is the reason the caravan park is here. It is just a ten minute drive away.It was blissfully peaceful on Monday afternoon, in stark comparison to Friday afternoon when I had cycled over to find it absolutely full – later finding out Friday was a public holiday in Darwin, which explains the crowds.Berry Springs consists of a series of pools, starting at the waterfall, fed by crystal clear springs. I enjoyed a nice shoulder massage as the water crashed over the rocks, before swimming along the creek to the main pool and lower pool. The pools are quite large and deep, ideal for swimming, kept topped up by a weir. Apparently below the weir is crocodile country, so I stayed clear from there!

There are plenty of native fish in the pools, clearly used to people swimming in their home.The water is a beautiful temperature.

Every day here is 32 degrees and sunny, sometimes a little patchy cloud lately, but fine weather. There is no rain expected at this time of year. This makes for some lovely sunsets – best enjoyed over a water view.Miss Tassie particularly enjoys the pontoon over the water – firstly because there are no canines around, but secondly I think it reminds her of our swimming pool at home. She usually likes to lie beside that, and has similar feelings about our local lake. I accompanied her each evening for our private sunset viewing.

Tuesday: The final day of July and also our final day in Berry Springs. It began early for me with a trip into Darwin for a haircut, to pick up Mr A’s repaired bike tyres and finally to collect Mark himself from the airport.I had a brief moment of blow-dried glamour down by the Darwin waterfront, before the humidity made any semblance of bounce drop and the breeze blew the last bits out. Why do hairdressers never believe me when I say their bouncy blow dry is unlikely to make it back to the car, let alone beyond the next 20 minutes?Mark arrived safe and sound after his long journey – a little frazzled having left his friends’ house in the UK 40 hours ago, and having travelled by three trains and three planes to finally reach this spot. Still, all flights had left and arrived to schedule so no complaints. All went as well as could be expected on his trip, and he really appreciates all the messages of condolence he has received.

After returning to the Zone and reuniting with Princess Tassie, we whisked ourselves off back to Berry Springs for a swim. I had purchased a floatation noodle for each of us this time, which made it a very relaxing hour, and just what the doctor ordered after such an arduous journey!

23-26 July: To Berry Springs and Darwin

Author: Mrs A

Location: Berry Springs, Northern Territory

Monday: It was a busy morning of packing up while Mr A took the Landcruiser into Katherine to get the wheel alignment checked (standard check post new shocks). Finally we took off up the highway, about a three hour drive to Berry Springs.

Berry Springs is a tiny rural settlement located about 60km south of Darwin. These days it is primarily a jumping off point for Litchfield National Park, Berry Springs Nature Park and the Territory Wildlife Park.

Our park is located beside Lake Barden, a horseshoe shaped lake designed specifically for waterskiing – no action here at the moment though, just lots of birds and a few crocodiles apparently (hopefully of the freshwater variety!).Checking in for 10 days, I believe we have one of the best sites in the park. Nice and shady, grassy with no neighbours for about 15 metres. Better still, we had barely set up when the campground managers came over with three boxes of wine – our Vinomofo and Ross Hill deliveries have made it safely. Sadly the Tscharke wine delivery made it in a leaking crumpled mess to the Berry Springs Post Office with just enough time for the courier to photograph it and then take it away again. Will we ever get to try this wine? Third time lucky we hope…

Tuesday: Mark finished off his packing and we loaded up the car with his case plus our poor punctured bike tyres to take them into Darwin. Forty-five minutes later we were pulling up outside Cycle Zone (we thought it was an appropriate name!) and dropping them off. It seems my bike is going to be a simple (if costly) fix, but Mr A`s Surly tyres will need a bit more thought.

We then went off to find lunch – TripAdvisor came to the rescue here, and we were soon calling into the Magic Wok Restaurant. There, we selected raw vegetables and meat from a selection (a wide variety including buffalo, crocodile, emu, kangaroo and other interesting choices), chose a sauce and a noodle or rice. You pay depending on the weight of your plates. We both decided on seafood laksa, which was outstanding.

Soon it was time to drop Mark to the airport for his flight to Perth and onward to the UK. I jumped in to the driver`s seat for the first time in a long while and drove on back to Berry Springs to chill out with my furry housemate.

Wednesday: for me a day of washing and working – doing analysis on some research I have conducted while travelling. Mid afternoon I got a message from Mark to say he had safely made it into London and was on the train travelling across the city. It all seemed so fast!

Miss Tassie did a little exploring, deciding the nearby lake is ideal for sunbathing.

Thursday: I received a message early to let me know my bike was ready to collect, so I decided to spend the morning writing my report and then head back into Darwin in the afternoon. Annoyingly our lovely new washing machine decided to start pumping out error codes, and I spent an hour trying to sort that out..not solved yet.

I drove into Darwin, relieved at the nice quiet roads and easy parking outside the bike shop. My tyres are now tubeless, so now hopefully no more punctures. I am really looking forward to jumping on my bike for an explore. Mark`s bike tyres are still in the workshop.

Given I was already in town, I decided to hang around and check out the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. I last went to those when I was up here backpacking 19 years ago. Being a little early, I walked around the coast to the Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory, dipping my toes in the Timor Sea along the way.

The museum is well worth a visit. It not only covers the Northern Territory`s natural history (with an extensive collection of fossils and taxidermy), a display and recordings of Cyclone Tracey in the 1970s (which instill fear into anyone listening to the 200 mile an hour winds ripping apart the flimsy wood and corrugated iron homes), but also the history of settlement. It is this which is quite shocking when viewed through today`s eyes.In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Northern Territory was quite a tough and unruly place to live. The climate is challenging to say the least, and settlers trying to grow crops were also stymied by poor soils, high temperatures and rainfall followed by drought. Aboriginal people largely carried on their usual life, with some being employed by pastoralists and hotel operators, and as stockmen, hunters and laborers.

In 1911 that all changed with several policies introduced as part of the`White Australia`goal. Aboriginal people were suddenly severely restricted in their movement, and it is at around this time children were removed from Aboriginal families and placed into missions, especially if they were of mixed decent. There was an assumption that Aboriginal people would simply `become extinct` while the children could be assimilated into white society – a shocking perception given what we know now about the continuous occupation of Australia by Aboriginal communities for up to 60,000 years. This policy continued right up until the 1970s.As you leave the museum and see young Aboriginal people sprawled drunk over the pavement, you see that it is now sadly alcohol addiction and a lack of sense of belonging which is killing them.

On to more cheery things…The Mindil Beach Market consists predominantly of food vendors, surrounded by jewellery, artwork and some clothing stalls. There is a good atmosphere with live music being played and plenty of visitors.I had an early dinner and purchased a raw gluten-free, dairy-free cake (Mark’s worst nightmare!) as a treat for dessert before returning to Berry Springs for the evening.

8-9 July: Georgetown and the attack of the bindi

Author: Mr A

Location: Georgetown, Outback Queensland

Sunday: Georgetown does have an excellent information centre, and very kindly they helped me with some printing of flight itineraries for the the UK dash back. They also have a brilliant (no pun intended) gemstone and mineral collection. On from there we cycled to the only tourist activity we could see in the town itself, a 6km walk/ride along the outskirts of town.We mostly followed the dry river bed, and all was going well, until that dreaded exclamation from Mrs A “Oh no….puncture”. I nipped back to camp on my bike, and returned with the car. Mrs A was soon loaded up with her bike and returned to camp, where we spent the next 3 hours picking bindi spikes out of both of our tyres! I’ve never ridden in this type of country before, so was pretty shocked how it has destroyed even my thick tyres. At least my tubeless set up kept me inflated, well until I started picking out the thorns! We are now going to have the petite (but usually very reliable) MTB that Catherine rides converted to a tubeless set up as well. Definitely worth it. So no more riding until we get to Darwin in a couple of weeks.

Another beautiful “big sky” sunset, as I call them, and the three of us (fur child included) watched it with a much needed glass of wine. These have been a tough few days, with all the hassle of sorting out our caravan to try and get mobile again, then organising everything in the UK connected with my mother’s funeral.At least we have good phone signal here in tiny little Georgetown. It’s been an experience, and makes you realise from talking to the locals, what are some of the challenges of living in a remote area. No doctors, dentists, supermarkets (one of the petrol stations stocks some basic supplies). Or any other trappings we take for granted in the city – restaurants, hairdressers, clothes shops etc. And even this place isn’t remote by some Australian standards, ie. it has tarmac road access!

Monday was a day spent organising more of my travel arrangements – booking transfers in the UK, getting menus sorted for the wake, and the myriad of other things that come with a last minute trip of this nature. The great thing is with an iPad and a 4G phone signal, its pretty easy. How times have changed.I have to say I have become a fan of Flight Centre today. I booked through them and they have provided superlative service, so easy to get hold of a real person and talk to them. As compared to going through Qantas, where I spent 45mins on hold trying to even speak to their call centre to resolve an issue. And Flight centre were cheaper for the same tickets. Excellent.

2 July: Loving learning about lava tubes

Author: Mrs A

Location: Mount Garnet to Mount Suprise

Monday morning again dawned grey and we wondered whether we would ever see the sun again. Off we took from Pinnarendi Station heading just a short way along the Kennedy Highway to our next destination.Undara is Aboriginal for ‘long way’, and is the name given to Undara Volcanic National Park when it was established in 1993. It’s interesting they chose to give it an Aboriginal name, since there is no evidence of any Aboriginal habitation, visitation or use in the direct vicinity. Still, I’m pleased there some nod of acknowledgement to the traditional custodians of this land, who suffered great losses at the hands of the original settlers.

Undara is famous for its lava tubes, created some 160,000 years ago from the shield crater volcano (a very low profile volcano, just some 20 metres above the land) also in the park. Many of the lava tubes have collapsed, but some of the more spectacular sections are open to the public by private tour. The name ‘Undara’ was selected due to the great distance the lava flowed from the volcano – 160km.

We smuggled Tassie past the ‘no domestic animals’ sign and parked up. She was more than happy to curl up on the bed and have a long overdue nap while we went off exploring. Given we were parked up on a cattle station and not actually National Park we figured it wasn’t too big a crime – that and she didn’t actually step paw on the ground at any stage.The sun soon came out and the dry landscape lit up with the coppery tones of the iron filled granite contrasting with the jet black basalt. It’s all quite different to the rich and green landscape of the past few weeks and we are really noticing the impact of the rain shadow cast by the Great Dividing Range along the coast.

How many kangaroos do you see?

We paid our crazy amount of money and joined a guide to take us on our ‘Active Explorer’ exploration, apparently only suitable for those with moderate fitness level. We boarded a mini bus and were transported to the site, our guide spouting non stop facts and figures about the area and what we were about to see.Before long, we were entering the first tube, clambering down piles of rubble left from a roof collapse. We were all too aware of the many tons of basalt over our heads, held together by little other than the compressive strength of the arch. Should the keystone break, then our travels would have ended right here.Fortunately for us, today was not that day, and we lived to explore another tunnel, this one around 1.3km in length, winding its way along an old watercourse. Bats, moths, cockroaches and cane toads are among the known (and seen) residents of these tunnels, and the colours are fabulous.Memories of my Uni Geography degree came back in troves, with images from text books flashing through my head, not revisited for more than 25 years! We both really enjoyed the visit – yes, it was pricey at nearly $60 a head for two hours, but we felt well educated at the end of it and further immersed in some of the geological history of Australia.

We departed and headed just a 45 minute drive out to Mount Surprise, where we had chosen to spend the night. We’re parked up at Bedrock Village Caravan Park – and yes, you guessed it, a strong Flintstones theme is here, with Fred and Wilma indicating the gender of the amenities and the odd nod to the cartoon to be found elsewhere.We decided to go for a stroll and what did we see? None other than a couple of handsome male cats on leads exploring. See folks – it’s not just us!We continued our walk as the sun lowered in the sky, spotting birds and just enjoying the feeling of sun on our skin. As nostalgic as the rain and drizzle has made us feel, we really do appreciate the warmer weather!Common Crow Butterflies, red winged parrots, whistling kites – there’s plenty of wildlife to be seen here, and topped our day off nicely.Where are we on our Savannah Way journey? Just a short way along, but a world of difference from Cairns. Off to a new destination tomorrow and a whole lot more red dust!The Savannah Way

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 🙂