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.

fnq01

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.

fnq03

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.

fnq04

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.

fnq05

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.

fnq06

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.

fnq07

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.

fnq08

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.

fnq09

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.

fnq10

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.

fnq11

 

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking

Winter warmers

There are plenty of ways to warm up during an Australian winter. Koala soup; scenic coal-fired electric blankets; just living practically anywhere apart from inland uplands, exposed southern promontories and frigid deserts. Only in the bleakest of places does a winter bite, the bleakest of places and Canberra.

QJun01Yet even within touching distance of the capital’s shivering legoland suburbs you can work up a sweat and work off a sweater. Climbing seven hundred metres or so, rising from the valley mists into a blue stratosphere, toward the crown of Mount Tennent. A steady grind with the sun on your back, the consequences clear in the comfort of short sleeves. And warmed all the more by vistas providing a positive effort:reward ratio so critical to the success of a good tramp.

QJun02

Meanwhile, back, again, in Queensland the effort required for such warmth is negligible. Brisbane may experience a fog but it barely lingers. It is quite comfortable – actually very comfortable indeed – to sit beside the river and eat a slab of cake alfresco. This place has been a second home of late, but despite this being my fourth visit in the space of a month I still cannot acclimatise sufficiently like the locals to wear a scarf without feeling entirely fraudulent. Fare thee well Brisbane, you have been good for my core temperature and bank balance, but your City Cycles are terribly uncomfortable.

Qjun04

One more week of work to go, one more week to go. That was what I was telling myself walking over the craggy hills and gentle sands of Magnetic Island. But, being on that island, it was hard not to think that I was on holiday already. I believe it may be down to the palm trees by the beach, or the strip of outdoor cafes at Horseshoe Bay, or the one road linking a few small towns in which most other people are on some kind of temporary or permanent holiday. Even the presence of backpackers adds to the mood that the only thing for it is to swing in a hammock.

QJun05

Possibly because Brisbane was not warm enough, work brought me north to Townsville, handily coinciding with a weekend in which to kill some time. So I grabbed the ferry across to the island and spent a wonderful day or two upon its shores. Saturday may have clouded over, but there was ample time to gently reacquaint myself with tropical forests and colourful birds, the briefest of sunsets and the longest of beers. Acclimatisation into that hammock holiday-minded state.

QJun06

QJun07But it was the Sunday that was super, cloudless throughout, though with a morning freshness that made the walking all the more pleasurable. Commencing with a wake up coffee by the beach in Horseshoe Bay, it was over one hill to one fine beach, over another to the next, and onward and upward to lookouts galore. A substantially energetic loop walk that topped out around The Forts – a series of wartime installations plonked atop the forest in a tasteful rendition of Plymouth city centre style concrete. Obviously here because of the commanding views, but the koalas didn’t seem to care whether the Japanese were coming or not.

Qjun08

Qjun09With the satisfaction and accomplishment of a walk complete, a late lunch of salt and pepper calamari beside the water will suffice thank you very much. Oh, and ice cream, of course. I am feeling like I am on holiday after all. So much so, that as Sunday dwindles and the prospect of Monday creeps up, I do not want to leave. The late sun glows and dips and fades and the stars and moon twinkle as blue turns to black. Yet still I am comfortable in shorts, and with another end of day beer in hand.

Qjun10

Happily Monday brought some drizzle and the transition back to work was reasonably comfortable in Townsville. But there was an abrupt decline in its standard as I re-located south, to Dubbo. On the plus side though this was not as bad as I expected, but then I expected little. The people were nice, I found a good coffee, and squeezed in a pleasant riverside walk. But I was ready to get out of there and, temporarily, get home.

Qjun11And so, the climatic rollercoaster finally shifted into Sydney, for one night only and then onto Canberra. Sydney was putting on its sparkling look-at-me face, demonstrating a pretence at winter that is misaligned with the comfort of not needing a coat. I was even able to brave an ice cream, sadly. Canberra, meanwhile, had its morning shroud of cold and cloud, but cleared to its best fresh hue of blue. One more week, one more week of keeping warm, and then a northern summer will bless me again.

Australia Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Totally (un)tropical taste

Turns out Sean Bean was right before he had his head chopped off all that time ago (very old spoiler alert!). Winter was definitely coming. Genius prediction, much like Mystic Meg predicting someone with the letter A in their name will win some unspecified amount of money on the lottery. Of the same level of insight as the Australian Prime Minister telling us that conflict is not just about goodies v baddies but sometimes baddies v baddies, bang bang you’re dead nah nah nah nah nah.

Yes, winter has come, though still a temperate south of the wall kind of winter. Chill morning fog and darkness before five. A fortnight long cold which cycles between varying levels of mucus and ear blockage and throat irritation and is happy to never quite go away. Slow cooked beef and tom yum soups and the occasional hot chocolate to soothe things down. A time when images beamed at crazy hours of the night from northern – or indeed equatorial – climes are a somehow compelling, comforting companion.

tv01As Brazil shakes its booty, the tropics are never sexier. So it was with a tinge of disappointment that I rocked up in Townsville, north of the Tropic of Capricorn, to find a fine imitation of a wet weekend in Morecambe. Even the locals were aghast and – predictably given a ‘chill’ 19 degrees or so – wrapped up in cardigans and these strange and rare things known as trousers. Crazy weather they said. Climate change they uttered. Wahhhh you’re from Canberra you’re mad I could never cope with that I like the warmth and being near the sea and lolling around too much they exclaimed incredulously.

tv03So what to do on a wet weekend in Townsville? Trudge along the ever fine esplanade in your waterproof and realise that maybe you should buy some new shoes that don’t absorb quite so much water. Marvel at the views of Magnetic Island which emerge in between cloudbursts and drizzle fronts. Attempt to have an alfresco coffee as wind sweeps in sideways rain. Soak up the Great Barrier Reef, presented in aquarium form, and battle with thousands of kids to look at a faaaaaaahkin shaaaaaaak.

tv02

By Tuesday (when I had work to do) the rain had stopped, and then Wednesday (the day I left) it was back to sunny skies. This meant that – while an excursion across to Maggie was now off the cards – I could at least get out a little, and savour just a smidgeon of that tropical taste. I climbed Castle Hill, invariably described as a pink granite monolith and plonked right in the middle of the city. Just like Rio, I thought, as I clambered up the many, many steep and arduous steps to the top. No giant Jesus at the summit, but some fat guy in shorts was there. He had driven up on the road, to marvel at the views still submerged under a mackerel sky.

tv04

tv05I was pleased to exercise, just so I could eat guilt free on the waterfront; indeed, I think the eating side of things was the most satisfactory part of this tropical foray. The sun managed to accompany a delicious lunchtime salt & pepper calamari salad on Tuesday and a sweet corn pancake and bacon brunch was the perfect gap filler until my flight home on Wednesday. I squeezed in a coffee or too, some soggy fish n chips, and, right near the end, a beachside gelato. The tropics had returned, the sexiness was back.

tv06And with just an hour or two to spare I could take those idyllic palm tree beach shots, and capture the fragrant green tinge of a city lumped around hills. I could walk in shorts (yes shorts!) along the very excellent Strand – a perfect seaside promenade punctuated with eating and drinking stops in between sandy bays. I could pretend, should I wish, to have had a sublime tropical getaway and delete all the pictures of rain on my iphone. I could happily linger until September.

tv07

tv08But then, returning towards my hotel and a taxi to the airport, a snake came up to me and said something like, “Neil, you don’t want to stay here. The air force planes are too noisy. The coffee could be better. There are sharks. And mosquitoes just waiting to eat your succulent English blood. Backpackers will overwhelm us, plus there are people obsessed about some stupid annual rugby league match. Oh, there are some snakes too. They might not be as nice as me.” Sage advice, insightful predictions. And so I scampered off to the airport and wee wee wee wee all the way home, all the way home to winter.

Australia Green Bogey