Undara- post 4 of 8 Panoramic views at sunset

As the dusk deepened, our bus parked and we were instructed to hurry up a small hill; some were just in time to see the sun dipping below the horizon and the beginnings of a changing pink flush spreading across the land.  I dallied with eyes peeled for more macropods, and reached the summit after sundown. Before me lay 360 degrees of savannah lands.  Stillness.  Softness.

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The photos show the facts of the landscape; the flatness of the savannah covered plains, the occasional volcanic structure, the rocky outcrops,  and the big sky with its sunset colours.  The photos have not captured the feel of the slight drop in temperature; I felt compelled to pull on a jacket and zip up.  The photos do not include people holding flutes of sparkling wine and nibbling canapes.  Together we celebrated the sun going down, the beauty of the vista, and our sense of privilege to stand in such an expansive and isolated landscape.

Undara – post 3 of 8 The hoppers during the sunset tour

Soon after returning from the tour of the lava tubes it was time to gather for the Sunset Tour. I confess that I wasn’t interested but had agreed to join the group – with a resigned ‘seen one sunset seen the lot’ notion coursing through my mind. I was surprised.  Pleasantly. Very surprised with how important this tour was to my understanding of the landscape and it’s animals – and yes, the sunset was fine.  I am full of praise for those who locked me into this tour.

The guide loaded a small group of people into a bus and we set off at dusk.  First up, he insisted that anything wearing a long tail and hopping had to be labelled ‘macropod’ and not ‘kangaroo’.  The reason being that in this landscape bounds a diversity of members of the macropod family; such as wallaroos including the antilopine wallaroo, pademelons, and many others in addition to varieties of kangaroo and wallaby.  Our driver wanted us to learn to identify the differences.  So we called out every time we saw a macropod feeding in the grasses near the track we were following; then the driver halted the bus for us to watch. Over an hour we all began to pick the differences and identify exactly which macropod or family of macropods we were watching.  This searching process ensured our eyes and brains remained active, and the reward was new understandings. Marvellous.

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Of course you wonder if I can name each of the macropods in the photos above.  I cannot.  Alas, I have forgotten the details required to make the identifications.  Nevertheless, the experience was special and it opened my eyes to the diversity of bounders out in our bush.

We continued on along sandy tracks appreciating the ‘cold burns’ in the bush that keep the undergrowth controlled without burning through canopies and killing trees.  Quite quickly new growth appears and tasty green shoots emerge everywhere to tempt the macropods to break cover.  And it works for the health of the bush and for the fauna.

Undara – post 2 of 8 Into the lava tube

From the strong sunlight we descended into the darker world of the first lava tube.

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The ceiling of the first tube was spectacular with its angular shapes and its soft brown colours.  Patterns from water created a decorative finish.

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We walked down and beneath this ceiling.

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I loved the subtlety of the colours, and the unworn rock structures.

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20170623_135751.jpg Interpretation signs helped with my understanding of what had happened here.

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20170623_135918.jpgWe continued walking and entered into a second lava tube. I loved the way the openings framed this subterranean landscape. They reminded me of 19th century arch shaped frames used on some paintings and photographs of that period.

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In the wet season of northern Queensland the heavy rains flood the floors of these lava tubes and therefore a silt has built over the years.  Over time a substance called calcrete builds up; more information can be read here.

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The ceiling of the second tube showed different effects.

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In some places fine tree roots had penetrated through the thick rocky surface and they hung freely from the ceiling  Later our guide showed us, up on the surface, the living tree connected to one of the thicker roots swinging from the ceiling.

This tour was exceptionally interesting, not only for the information provided by the guide, but also for the sounds, smell, and visuals associated with these lava tubes.  Quite extraordinary. Both my friend and I were very pleased to have had the experience.

Undara – post 1 of 8 Tour to lava tubes

Once I arrived at Undara, and had dropped my luggage in my contemporary 1 bedroom separate ‘house’, friend John joined me after driving up country from the south.  Off we headed to a visitor group meeting point ready to be led by an accredited guide to the geological formations created by volcanoes millennia in the past; the lava tubes.  Undara and the country for hundreds of kilometres around, is volcanic country.

I learnt a new fact that day.  When the word volcano is used I always visualise a conical structure which, when it erupts, sends ash and projectiles and lava explosively into the air. Now I know that the ‘composite’ volcano is only one of two types of volcanoes.  The second type is categorised as a ‘shield’ volcano, is comparatively flat, and never explodes. The lava tubes at Undara have been formed by shield volcanoes.

After an introduction and housekeeping by the guide we boarded a small bus and were driven into the country.

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We passed all manner of rocky outcrops.

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Once out of the bus, I wandered over to an interpretation sign.

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Then I followed the guide on the Archway Explorer tour (no-one is permitted to visit these lava tubes without an official guide). Along the path he provided an explanation of the rocks, and an introduction to the local geological history.

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In the distance was a band of green vegetation, marking a gully created by a lava tube where the ceiling had fallen in.

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An old Bottle Tree (Brachychiton rupestris) was also spotted.

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The gully was a tangle of dry branches and rocking stones and rocks, and formed home for a small family of Mareeba rock wallaby. I saw one camouflaged with its grey fur moving deftly up the rocks and away from us.

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The gully led to the entrance of our first lava tube.

Transit to Undara

After one day mostly in lush rich dense rainforest it was time to seriously start exploring savannah country. The Undara National Park, and specifically the Undara lava tubes, was my first destination. I taxi’d to the Cairns Central Bus Station around 6 am ready to travel on a Transnorth bus that transports people and freight three days a week to towns along a route that ends at Karumba on the southern end of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

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My destination was a few kms east of Mount Surprise, four and a half hours away from Cairns.

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The bus carried regulars who knew each other despite hundreds of kilometres of road separating their homes. Only a couple were like me, total strangers to each other and to the territory we were passing through.  But that bus trip felt like a comfortable one with family. Relaxed. Warm. Welcoming.

The bus did not have a toilet ‘down the back’, a normal feature of Australia’s long distance buses/coaches.  Instead, in that space a large area had been blocked off for freight. We were alerted to be prepared to wait for the public toilets in the towns along the way if we were desperate for a nature call.  Otherwise the driver would be making a point of stopping for a while in the tiny town of Ravenshoe.

As it happened, the driver stopped a great many times to collect and despatch freight, so no-one was ever uncomfortable.  The driver reckoned he had never seen such a volume, but we soon worked out the reason for the extra loads of freight.  It was nearing the end of June – only a few days before the end of the financial year. Obviously, businesses and individuals out west had been spending any left-over dollars and their ordered goods were now on their way. In fact there was so much freight that day, that I arrived at my let-off point for the Undara Resort half an hour late.

We wound uphill from Cairns along the Kennedy Highway and continued past the hillside town of Kuranda. Not long after, the road crossed Haren Creek. It was at this point I could see a dramatic change in the vegetation – dense rainforest on the Kuranda end of the Highway and the new open start of Savannah country on the inland side.

We passed coffee plantations, different varieties of mango fruit trees and other crops. Mareeba, on the Atherton Tableland, was our first stop to drop off and collect freight.  It was still early morning but the air was clear, the sky bright and the business of the day was starting to turn over across this town.

Next we arrived at the historic town of Atherton where I sat on the bus and remembered my past associations and mused. A couple of decades ago, I researched and developed a strategic marketing plan for the National Trust of Queensland in respect of the rare and historically precious Hou Wang Temple. It was a privilege to be associated with such an internationally important building and all its historical baggage.  I ‘came back’ to Atherton when I heard the back door of the bus bang shut; the freight was stowed and the bus driver was returning to his seat. Off we motored all the time moving southwards before the big shift to drive westwards.

Herberton was a long stop. I admired the driver’s fitness as he handled what seemed like a tonne of boxes, and managed to stack and pack them away. I knew Herberton is the home of the Historic Village which is a large scale outdoor museum with a particular focus on the local tin mining history, however there was no time to stop and view it;  the bus whizzed by and I was headed elsewhere.

The weather changed from sunny and dry. Clearly we were passing on the edge of the misty mountains area of the Tableland, where drizzle and rain are constants.

Misty Mts.JPGAt damp Ravenshoe a deliberate stop-over of half an hour was scheduled as a late morning tea break at the Tall Timbers Roadhouse at the edge of town. It was important to understand that the bus driver, apart from being the freight handler, was solely responsible to drive the whole distance from Cairns to Karumba in the one day, and then return to Cairns the following day. Around 12 hours. A big ask. In a big country. It is what people do ‘out back’.

Mt Garnet was the last town we stopped at before the bus continued on.  The trees were far apart.  The land was dry.  I was thrilled when seeing the occasional native bottle tree, and the rounded termite mounds across the paddocks.  The information about the termites here shows grand tall mounds, but what I saw were small low level much rounder structures.  Courtesy of the site here is a photo of the sort of mounds I enjoyed seeing.

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After many kilometres, we turned off the southward bound Kennedy Highway onto the Gulf Development Road which headed in a more north westerly direction.

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My destination was the Undara National Park just ‘up the road’ not far from the Kennedy Highway.

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The Undara Resort is 16 km off the Highway so in the hot afternoon sun it was not a proposition to walk that gravel road. Instead the bus driver contacted the Resort and let them know what time he expected to reach the T junction and asked that they send someone to collect me.  A woman and a small bus was waiting when the bus stopped by the side of the road – in the middle of nowhere.  Perfect service. Courtesy. No fuss. And it all just happened.

Etheridge Local Council and the Savannah Way

According to this site ‘The Savannah Way is Australia’s Adventure Drive, linking Cairns in Tropical North Queensland with the historic pearling town of Broome in Western Australia’s Kimberley, via the natural wonders of Australia’s tropical savannahs and the Northern Territory’s Top End.’ The sub-site ‘Cairns to Normanton’ focuses on some parts of the savannah territory that I crossed, walked around, and loved. The details are many and you can learn more about many weeks’ worth of experiences to be had in the area. Brochures and maps are provided.

A company, Savannah Way Ltd has been formed and some of its members are local governments; the Savannah Way passes through the land of different local governments. Undara, my second main destination is located on the eastern side of the Etheridge Local Council’s huge allotment; see the green shaded National Park on the right hand side here. Information about historical and cultural matters can be read here.  The Council’s vision: ‘Our vision for the Shire is one of growth and development but balanced with keeping our lifestyle as a safe and interesting place to live. Our growth isn’t just theoretical, we ARE growing and we need more residents to move to take up the many jobs and business opportunities available. Mining, tourism and the cattle industry are the predominant sectors in our economy but as our population grows, so will services need to expand. We have great hospitals, schools and services. Our showcase tourism facility is TerrEstrial, a unique concept incorporating a Visitor Information, Council Library, Internet Cafe and one of the Shire’s most significant Tourist Attractions – the Ted Elliott Mineral Collection.’

Atherton Tableland

The Emerald Creek Ice Creamery that was visited during my earlier excursion, is located on the Atherton Tableland.  On subsequent trips out west I passed through a number of key towns that dot this area so I thought it would be valuable to provide a little more information.

The Atherton Tableland is exceptionally important agriculturally for Cairns particularly and for north eastern Australia generally.  It is vast, fertile and most often it is luscious green in colour. This is overlaid with various tourism opportunities many of which are based on world heritage recognised environmental areas.

Wikipedia sets the scene with a tiny history and other facts.  The Kanjini Co-op  website includes a map showing the extent of the Tablelands. An Atherton Tablelands website introduces a range of food, events and locations.

The Tablelands provides a gateway to other tourism experiences in north western Queensland; I will be travelling through the Tablelands and onward to my next destination at Undara.  Later I will pass by on the way to Chillagoe. On another occasion I will float over one of the main towns, Mareeba.

 

 

What is a Savannah country?

Dick Williams and Gary Cook have prepared a document Savanna landscapes  which details at length and with photographs the situation in relation to the typical Savanna environment in Australia.

A Wikipedia site provides the information that “A savanna or savannah is a mixed woodland grassland ecosystem characterised by the trees being sufficiently widely spaced so that the canopy does not close. The open canopy allows sufficient light to reach the ground to support an unbroken herbaceous layer consisting primarily of grasses.”  It also includes a photograph “demonstrating the high tree density and regular spacing characteristic of many savannas”.  This site usefully explains the differences between Savannahs in countries across the globe.

A factsheet produced by Cool Australia explains the Australian tropical savanna represents 23% of Australia’s land.  The factsheet includes excellent descriptive photographs.

 

Rainforest post 6 of 6-On the Kennedy Highway and into Cairns

We returned to the Kennedy Highway, turned inland and continued past paddocks of tropical fruit trees to the Emerald Creek Ice Creamery. Set off the road, this wonderful outpost has been designed for tourist traffic, but in the nicest way.  Lots of parking space, indoor and outdoor seating, and welcoming owner/managers. They make all their icecreams and sorbets; there are dozens to choose from.  Only locally sourced fresh fruit from nearby farms on the Atherton Tableland are used for the ingredients. The result is all manner of exotic combinations of flavours – I had a wonderfully refreshing lime and dragon fruit sorbet. A viewing window has been designed into the large retail space so when products are being made, visitors can watch.

It was mid-afternoon when we left the Ice Creamery and began the journey back towards the coast and Cairns.  But new experiences were still to come.  At Kuranda the 4WD wandered through the town streets until reaching a parking spot edged by huge interpretation panels and a walkway to a platform where the Barron Falls and the Skyrail could be viewed.

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My guide said that the train from Kuranda, loaded with tourists on their way back to Cairns, would be coming into the station immediately below us and within seconds the beast with its many carriages rumbled in. The coloured engine almost seemed camouflaged through the trees, but the carriages had a non-descript plain dark top.

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Cairns and its hinterland did not have a typical ‘wet season’ earlier this year; it was much drier than normal. Even the torrential rain of cyclones only affected towns much further south.  So, though the month of June is counted as the ‘dry season’, I believe the lack of a proper ‘wet season’ is the reason why next to no water was passing over the Barron Falls. Nevertheless the landscape was grand and dramatic.   20170622_153521.jpg

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One of the interpretation panels recognised the differences in seasons.

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From these magnificent viewing points, we headed off and journeyed along the winding Kennedy Highway and eastwards down to the coast.  We turned north onto the Captain Cook Highway and continued some distance until masses of kangaroos/wallabies could be seen in the paddocks on the sea side of the highway.  My guide Kevin turned his 4WD around and parked by one of the paddocks so I could have a closer view. In all my life I have never seen so many of these macropods in one place naturally. Not even in zoos have I see such numbers clustered together.  But the green feed was good so this was the place for their dinner.

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Not long afterwards I was back at my Cairns accommodation after a very long day full of educational experiences, and with a fledgling appreciation of the differences between Rainforest and Savannah country.

Rainforest post 5 of 6-Davies Creek Falls

We continued south westward along the Kennedy Highway until reaching the Davies Creek Road where we turned off towards the Falls.

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The country was dramatically different from the rainforest covered lands seen earlier in the day. The prominent feature was the huge granite boulders. Despite the grandiosity of the landscape the atmosphere was serene. The following photos show selections of the landscape viewed when walking from the road at the top of the hill down a gravel track to Davies Creek and its waterfall.

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When near the Creek, only a tiny waterfall was streaming over the water-worn rocks.

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Views looking upstream included:

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The views looking downstream to a lip where the water falls – rather like an infinity pool:

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Enjoy the sounds of the running water, and the colours of the rocks in this video.

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Rainforest post 4 of 6-Leaving the area via Clohesy River Road

From our lunch spot we walked about a kilometre towards the massive strangler Fig trees.

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I particularly liked the (comparatively) smaller fig trees with their massive buttresses.

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Nothing prepares you for the scale of the massive complex strangled versions.

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Seven or so kilometres later we drove out from Clohesy River Road, turned left onto the Kennedy Highway and headed south west past the Dinden State Forest.

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Somewhere along that last stretch of Clohesy River Road and the Highway the vegetation changed dramatically from rainforest to open forest. This was the edge of the northern Savannah lands.

I located a 25 minute video titled Clohesy River Road Strangler Fig Tree Honda Africa Twin which shows the changing landscape from the open forest near the highway to increasingly dense bush then finally to rainforest.  Surprisingly, the bikerider in the video stumbles onto the area where we had lunch and where Kevin, my tour guide, has arrived to set up lunch. Kevin showed the bikerider a video of the large colourful tropical bird, the Cassowary, which had walked around this site in recent days. Regrettably none walked around while I was there – but the bikerider’s video shows what they look like. Then the video proceeds along the walkways and through the tangled ancient fig trees, before the bikerider heads off on the road again and continues into the rainforest edged roads.  Better by far than my spiritless still photographs.  I hope this video will stimulate blog followers from northern Queensland to visit if they haven’t already been there.

I have roughly marked the track/road we took from Lake Morris to the Kennedy Highway on the following map – as a guide. Suburbs of Cairns can be seen on the right of the photo.

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Rainforest post 3 of 6-North westwards from Copperlode Dam

Up and down and up and down a rugged 4WD gravel track we rolled, occasionally washing the underside of the vehicle as we crossed through creeks, and marvelling at the way the vegetation changed depending on which side the hill faced and whether we were on the top of a hill or in a gully. Along the way we were stopped by a number of locked gates; thankfully my guide had all the keys.

At one stage we stopped to look at gigantic palms. In the photos below you can appreciate the thickness of a frond by comparison with the guide’s arms and his general size. I wish I had taken notes – at the time, I knew more about these plants but those details have fled my memory banks.

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Eventually we turned onto an almost-not-there track and followed it to a tiny creek (is this Shoteel Creek?) that curved away from view.  This was the location for our lunch break. Remote. Isolated. Cool under the foliage with the wisps of a breeze from the passing water.  Magic.

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I am one for simple pleasures; this video demonstrates how gentle the environment was that day.  Nearby we reacted positively to a very large native scrub fowl nest; see it’s great height in the photos below.

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For more details about these birds and their habits have a look here.

 

Rainforest post 2 of 6-Lake Morris

After leaving Stoney Creek we returned to the outer suburbs of Cairns, turned into Lake Morris Road and followed its ever-upwards, ever-winding length. In certain sections I could look down and view the massive plain on which Cairns was built – originally mangroves and mudflats.  Apparently Lake Morris Road is a popular training circuit for cyclists and runners – a perfect training ground for those who like steep gradients and are not fearful of other vehicular traffic coming around each narrow mountain-road corner. Thick tropical rainforest edges much of the road and clearly this is not a landscape through which a casual trek might be taken.

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Throughout the day I was privileged to walk on the Country of the original landowners who had lived here for thousands of years before Europeans began claiming and settling this land. On arrival at Lake Morris, the first sign I noticed provided information about the traditional owners of the land – the Djabugay.

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The second thing I noticed was the spectacle of the lake and the heavily forested hills rising from it.  This man-made lake forms the main water source for the population of Cairns, and recreational use is permitted. The sun was shining with lots of blue sky so that the midmorning warmed me. I was delighted.

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The Copperlode Dam holds back the water of Lake Morris. After a morning tea break, the guide was able to unlock the access gate and drive across the top of the dam into the bush in the distance.

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But before we left Lake Morris, one sign reminded me how special this place was.

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Rainforest post 1 of 6-Stoney Creek

On the eastern edge of North Queensland’s Savannah country lies a belt of tropical rainforest.  I spent one day exploring this humid paradise with a tiny excursion into the Savannah lands, as a way of preparing to understand the Savannah more deeply in the days to follow.

I paid a guide with his 4WD vehicle to take me into forests which the normal public cannot access; locked gates and many keys.  My guide was exceptionally knowledgeable and loved to share. He engaged directly with me and the few others in the vehicle to be sure of our comfort and safety and to be sure we were able to learn and experience as much as we wanted. In addition, on the tricky 4WD tracks and out on the highways he was always a safe driver. And conservation and preservation of the natural environment was always a high priority. For all these reasons and more I recommend Kevin, the owner/guide of Wilderness Eco Safaris for a wonderful day of discovery.

So what did I experience that day?

First up we drove along Stoney Creek Road at the edge of Cairns until the road reached a sign indicating this was an access point for the Barron Gorge National Park, and another providing visitor information.  We piled out of the vehicle and smelled and absorbed the wet air (it was the ‘dry season’ in northern Australia but coming from a very dry Hobart environment I felt the strength of the humidity which locals simply do not feel at that time of the year).

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We walked up along the Garndal Garndal weir track  beside Stoney Creek (which feeds into the Barron River) and were introduced to a diversity of native plants amidst a background of the movement of water in Stoney Creek and bird song from the trees.  Tranquil. Relaxing.

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The exceptionally unpleasant plant ‘wait a while’ was evident at many spots near the track.  This climbing vine-like plant has prickly stems and sharp hooks that will attach and hold onto your clothes and your skin if you try to pass by.

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We saw  fungus assisting the decay of fallen trees.

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If time had permitted we could have deviated and set off for a much longer walk via the Douglas Track, and others.

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A local map creates a picture of the different walking tracks and features in the vicinity.

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My day trip exceeded the locations in this map;  the next post will introduce you to the place I visited subsequently.

Where is the northern Savannah country?

The Savannah lands of northern Queensland represent only a very tiny portion of that very large State of Australia. Nevertheless the importance of the area for the national economy in terms of beef production, fruit growing and tourism cannot be overstated.  Below I am including a number of maps, thanks to Google, to help you understand the massive size of Queensland and the places to which I travelled.

map of aust

In the next map, you can see the city of Cairns marked as the northern most city of Queensland on the eastern seaboard.  If you were able to travel from Cairns in a direct line, ‘as the crow flies’,  west to the border with the Northern Territory, you would cover 1000 kilometres.  Driving to the border would be a much longer distance as roads wind around the contours of a very ancient landscape. When a friend suggested I title this blog ‘way out west’, I explained that my journey covered only a centimetre or so on the map.  Considering the scale of this country, I travelled across a small portion.

map of Qld

On one of my journeys west from Cairns, I travelled part way along the highway that finishes at Karumba at the southern end of the Gulf of Carpentaria.  After 5 hours along the road, one of my trips left that main road east of Mt Surprise – so you can begin to appreciate the scale of that part of northern Queensland.

Map of Cairns to Normanton etc

The map below pinpoints one of my visit locations; the Undara lava tubes. North of Undara, the town of Chillagoe is marked;  another location that I visited later via a completely different and shorter road from Cairns.

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Between Undara, Chillagoe and close to Cairns is the town of Mareeba, the location for my uplifting hot air balloon ride.

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The tropical wilderness covering much of the hinterland immediately west of Cairns was the location for a day tour.  I travelled via Lake Morris and through the Barron Gorge National Park, the Dinden State Forest, out towards Mareeba passing orchards of tropical fruits, and the Kuranda rainforest area.

Day trip national parks

This blog offers both written and photographic descriptions of this tiny part of our world.  The report of my travels through a number of postings, is brief but should contain sufficient information for you to plan your holiday up that way, should you choose.