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.
My destination was a few kms east of Mount Surprise, four and a half hours away from Cairns.
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.
At 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.
After many kilometres, we turned off the southward bound Kennedy Highway onto the Gulf Development Road which headed in a more north westerly direction.
My destination was the Undara National Park just ‘up the road’ not far from the Kennedy Highway.
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.