Mission possible

I think a general principle of Australian exploration is the further north you go, the quirkier things get. For quirkier you could substitute odder, weirder, crazier, madder than a dozen cuts snakes lurking in the stinging trees waiting for a cassowary. It may be a result of the liberty that comes with increasing distance from the tyranny of inner city elites developing their secret mind-controlling pharmaceuticals to add to our underground water reserves. Or it could just be the balmy weather and barmy environment. Where pretty much everything wants to eat you.

I wouldn’t say Townsville is the capital of Crazytown, but there are certain idiosyncrasies to observe. Perhaps most obviously in the calibre of politicians representing the region, generally observed wearing big hats and force-feeding coal to their grandchildren, insistent that it is the future, it is it is. It is very easy to imagine Friday night here Cold War Steve style, all hi-vis hypermasculinity and gutter-strewn carnage at the foot of the concrete sugar shaker. My taxi driver confirmed as much as he took me to the airport, to pick up a hire car.

I had never been on the strip of land between Townsville and Cairns, and with a few days tagged on to a work trip I was heading up the coast towards Mission Beach. It’s an interesting enough drive with a decent selection of diversions along the way. It’s also a journey of transition from the golden dry tropics to the verdant abundance of the wet.

A little north of Townsville up the Strewth Highway, the blend of dry grassland and tropical rainforest manifests in Paluma Range National Park, with each climbing, narrow turn up the mountain road darkening as undergrowth thickens. Little Crystal Creek is on the cusp of a landscape in change, and a pretty place to pause. Higher up around Paluma, rainforest walks promise at views and deliver in sweatiness, though it’s still a long way from being as bad as it gets in high summer.

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It seems a bit ridiculous to talk of a summer in a place that is almost consistently between 26 and 30 degrees year round. Seasons are more marked by a change in humidity, from clear, arid winter days to muggy, stormy summer oppression. You can also throw in the odd cyclone, with the last big, big one – Yasi – hitting the coast around Mission Beach in 2011.

Continuing north up the highway approaching Cardwell, it is hard to picture today. But an enduring image from that storm is the pile of fancy yachts stacked upon one another at Hinchinbrook Marina. Three-quarters of buildings in Cardwell were damaged and the banana crop so tied to this part of the world was devastated. The rugged, pristine environment of Hinchinbrook Island tantalises today. But you wouldn’t have wanted to camp there back then.

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Cardwell seems a quiet kind of place, a pit top where the Bruce Highway finally meets the sea. Post-Yasi, a medium sized big crab has been resurrected on the top of a café. As you do. It’s competition along the highway with the Frosty Mango where I have already stopped and the Big Golden Gumboot of Tully in which I am destined to head.

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Finally, a turn off at Tully leads towards Mission Beach, which somewhat confusingly is a cluster of villages and bays along a stretch of coast twenty kilometres or so. We’re in a region known as the Cassowary Coast and they sure do emphasise the cassowary part of that nomenclature. Official and unofficial road signs alert you to the presence of this giant flightless bird, warnings that seem worthy given they are dwindling in numbers and most susceptible to road accidents. Some people might fear the cassowary for its strong hook-like claw, but you’ll generally find the ubiquitous Toyota Hilux is more lethal in so many ways.

Of course, being in cassowary country makes you – as they say – naturally cass-o-wary. Walking in dense rainforest at Lacey Creek it’s all a bit like encountering snakes…part of you would be thrilled to see one and to try to take a blurry picture, but part of you would be pooping your pants. Every rustle and fleeting shadow pricks the senses, only for it to be caused by an unseen gecko or another bush turkey.

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Down by the sea at Bingil Bay, there is always the chance of a crocodile or a lethal jellyfish to spot instead. Though the hosts at my B&B warned me the crocs are only in the creeks, I’m not so sure about stepping too far into that ocean. I mean, the creeks enter the sea, right. What goes in must come out. And with plenty of mangroves in which to lurk, I can just picture myself sunbaking right there if I was a saltwater crocodile. So, I move briskly on, along a fine, shady boardwalk towards the hub that is North Mission Beach. Where a cold beer with a view is the better means of cooling down, I reckon.

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Refreshed and now feeling in holiday mood, there was definitely justification in an afternoon siesta, before working up a sweat again climbing Bicton Hill in Clump Mountain National Park.  If cassowaries and crocs weren’t enough, the start of this trail warned of stinging trees, which boast attractive heart shaped leaves and plump purple fruit. The cunning bastards.

The sign at the bottom of the track also warns that this isn’t a walk for everyone, indicating heart-attack potential. But it’s not that bad, just a leafier, slightly deadlier version of Mount Ainslie with views out toward a far-less manicured landscape.

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With all this adventure and threat, one of the nice, homely touches of my B&B was the opportunity for drinks on the veranda at six o’clock. With only a few rooms it was cosy and relaxing, a chance to share the escapades of the day with those from further afield. Of course, being a naturalised Australian I was quickly assigned an authority on matters such as swooping birds, the diet of the cassowary, drought and bushfires, the hiding places of redback spiders, the pros and cons of Townsville, and…well…Brexit. I do suppose the Netherlands and Switzerland – especially Switzerland – seem very genteel by comparison.

At the B&B I was also frequently lobbied to try out the Kennedy Walking Track commencing at South Mission Beach. And so, on Sunday morning I decided to give it a go before the drive back to Townsville. And what a great recommendation to take up before eventually returning to the landlocked eucalypt land of four seasons back south. Yay for palm trees and golden sands, mangroves and croccy creeks, and that milky aquamarine sea. Another world in the same country.

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I have to say I do think the beaches of the south coast of New South Wales are in many ways better. They are typically finer and sandier and, well, you can generally paddle without as great a fear of being lunch and / or lacerated to death. But then there is just that air to the tropics, a mood and a light and colours so vivid. And palm trees and ferns and – up here – rainforest tumbling down to the sea. Like I say, another world in the same country.

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Talking of other worlds, I eventually made it back to Townsville via the largest potato scallops and smallest bites of fish in Ingham. A little early for my flight back, I remembered spotting a huge TV tower on top of a peak just to the west of town when I came to land at the same airport, and duly discovered there was a road to the top. From the summit of Mount Stuart, this possible Crazytown doesn’t seem too mad, distant as I am from its Sunday hangover.

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Perhaps madder is the scene inland, where the maddest of mad dogs can flourish. A scene dry and dusty and rugged and foreboding. A world devoid of much, exposed to a harsh, searing heat and unforgiving glare; perhaps you can see why many are happy enough to dig it up. The maddest thing though is that this world can suck you in, can draw you to it, can make you want to step one more foot into its fringe. It might even tempt you to buy a wide brimmed hat and some sturdy RM Williams boots. If only you didn’t have a flight to catch back to sanity.

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Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking

South to North

Frosts. Enough already! But it was heavy rain with milder conditions greeting me at five o’clock in the morning bound for Canberra Airport. Despite very little traffic, every light was red, the automatic check in counter didn’t recognise me and I was, with some sympathy, relayed the news that I was too late. I looked forlorn, beaten, empty. I felt as much.  But throw in a few calls and they managed to arrange some fog in Brisbane to delay my flight and leave me with a 12 hour trip to Darwin. Annoying but also blessed.

It is hard to be anything but languid in the tropics. I felt the odd man out putting on trousers and shoes to undertake work. But in between there were outdoor coffee stop laptop catch ups, esplanade strolls, and post-work reduced-price eating at the Mindil Beach Night Markets. And there were shorts, fully taking advantage of The Dry, which provides an unstinting predictability of blue skies and 33 degrees. Darwin grew on me, but mainly because it wasn’t The Wet. And I’m not sure I could live here, because it only seems to attain adequate on the coffee measurement scale.

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NT02Having come so far, I was determined to explore beyond Darwin during The Dry, so tacked on an extra night to squeeze in what most people would probably do over two or three days. An early start on Saturday and speed limits of 130km/h help, and I found myself entering Litchfield National Park before ten; just in front of the procession of tour buses (invariably named things like Crocco Tours, The Top End Crocosaurus, NT Outback Crocclebus etc etc) entering the parking area of Florence Falls.

I had been here in The Wet and it was, undeniably, very wet (there is a blunt truth to many a Top End expression). Today, there was still plenty of water gushing from the twin cascades and into a perfect swimming hole, which soon became populated by sagging swimsuits and shocking Speedos (the tour buses had arrived). No wonder the crocs keep away!

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Off the beaten track just a little, a path leads back to the car park following a small, shady creek. It’s called Shady Creek. Again, I remember this in February, when the path was subsumed by the creek and crossing took a bit of arms-linked watch where you put your feet and hope there’s not a snake there kind of affair. Today, with barely a soul venturing this way from the pools, it was a masterpiece of tranquillity. And still devoid of snakes.

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Rejoining the Stuart Highway I noted Alice Springs was a mere 1402 kilometres south. And between there, not very much at all. Apart from Katherine, which for quite a long time I pictured as a cute, small-town feel kind of spot nestled in a rocky valley beside the tree-lined meander of the Katherine River. It might even have a nice organic coffee place with homemade Hummingbird cake and copies of The Guardian.

About one hundred clicks out, and with the road trip feels returning to my synapses, I remembered to readjust my expectations. I’m glad I did; not that there was anything wrong with Katherine, but I was restricted to Woollies and Red Rooster for dinner. Nonetheless, it didn’t matter, for Katherine was purely a functional base from which to enter Nitmiluk, more commonly known as Katherine Gorge, a place I had neither been in The Wet nor The Dry.

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The benefit of a long drive was arriving in the latter part of the day, with the air cooling just a smidgeon and the light all radiant amber. It was so good, so captivating, that I hiked for a little longer than I planned, detouring an extra few kilometres through rocky valleys and verdant oases to Pat’s Lookout. Grand and serene, primeval and elemental, it was a surprise to be joined this late in the day by a couple of backpackers. But we didn’t say much, other than accented helloes, perhaps because we were just a little beholden by the world we were in.

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The light sunk lower as I headed back down towards the visitor centre, confident that I would make it before it became too dark. And indeed, my timing was only a little out, as the last red hues of the sun cast the top of the escarpment aflame. These are the scenes you live for in the Australian outback, these are the memories that never fade.

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Almost everyone who comes to Nitmiluk goes out onto the water. My restricted time meant the only option was the Dawn Cruise the next morning, before a race back to Darwin Airport. I think even if I had longer to linger, this would still have been the best option, with only a scattering of people aboard to witness the calm commencement of a magical new day.

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Quick tour guide factoid 1: there are actually nine gorges in Nitmiluk, inevitably named Gorge 1, Gorge 2, Gorge 3 etc. During The Wet, the natural rock barriers between each get flooded, allowing saltwater crocodiles a little greater room for exploration.

Quick tour guide factoid 2: the park rangers undertake a Saltie capture and release program to clear the gorge when the waters have subsided. This was in operation now. But Freshwater crocs are there all the time. Like over there, quick, look, just to the right of the boat. But the worse a Freshie can do is tear off your arm or some such.

Quick tour guide factoid 3: we have now come to the end of Gorge 1, so it’s time to get out of the boat and make your way for about 400 metres to the next boat and Gorge 2. It’s all rather gorgeous.

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As the sun slowly rises into a field of dotted high cloud, it intermittently breaks through to illuminate massive canyon walls topped with precariously positioned trees. The water flickers with a murmur of wind. A cormorant sits statue in a branch half submerged by water. Sandy beaches and mangroves are interspersed, sometimes disappearing into the fissures and fault lines of the massive sandstone plateau that stretches far into Arnhem Land.

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I could never ever pretend to understand what it is like to be an Aboriginal Australian. To be one of the Jawoyn people who have lived with this land for tens of thousands of years, way before a British Lieutenant was a twinkle in his father’s eye. To live, to breath, to die upon a land that they do not see themselves as owning but of being one of itself. It was a land that was a privilege, just for a few hours, to be a part of. And it seemed strange, very strange indeed, to know that I would be back in an artificial white man’s capital, a freezing white man’s capital, later that day.

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Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking