Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Road Trip part four -- the strangest bird in Australia

It was Bill Bryson who first got me interested in seeing a cassowary.
Before reading his book about Australia -- sold here as Down Under, and sold everywhere else as In A Sunburned Country -- I had never heard of cassowaries. But Bryson is fascinated by the deadly and dangerous critters of Oz, and among his catalogue of the spiders, snakes, jellyfish and the incredible number of other Australian things that can kill you, he mentions the cassowary. I don't recall his exact phrase, but he says something about this elusive flightless bird that lives in the jungles of north Queensland and kills its prey by leaping in the air and slashing with a single, oversized claw on the front of its foot. Since cassowaries are nearly as big as emus, that's a pretty serious slash. People have been killed by cassowaries.
Naturally we added them to the list of creatures we wanted to see.

We have, in fact, seen some since arriving here. It was at Australia Zoo, and we spent a few minutes marvelling at these really odd looking birds.The colours on their head are truly bizarre, and what looks like a rooster's comb on the top is really a bone, or an extension of the beak, or something else that's neither feathery nor fleshy. In fact they're so odd that we began to suspect they aren't really a bird at all. We decided they are, in fact, people dressed up in costume. Some sort of elaborate Australian hoax they play on tourists. The down under version of the jackelope.
If that's the case, though, it seems that a lot of people are in on the joke: travel around Cape Tribulation and you see signs by the side of the road all over the place asking drivers to slow down to avoid the cassowaries.After seeing so many signs we decided these improbable creatures were likely real -- after all, if huge jumping rats (aka kangaroos) and platypuses are real, then why not flightless birds with day-glo heads and deadly kung fu kicks? So we started looking for them.
Every time we stopped somewhere that had cassowary warning signs along the road, we would ask about sightings. We were directed to this trail or that trail, spots where there had been plenty of sightings. But each time we came up empty-handed.
We felt sure we would see one once we got north of the Daintree River, to a region that's sometimes called Cassowary Country. It's a truly remarkable spot, where you can stand in the rainforest, look across a beach and see where the Great Barrier Reef comes as close to the mainland as it does anywhere. You have to take a ferry across the river as there are no bridges, and the road twists and turns through the jungle. Every few kilometres you come across a roadhouse, a caravan park, a little resort or a shop. It could feel very twee and touristy, but it doesn't. Instead the whole place has kept an air of being a little secluded spot at the end of the road. Which it is, sort of -- once you get to Cape Tribulation, about 40 kms north of the river, it's the end of the road for people driving conventional vehicles. The rest of the way to Cooktown the road is suitable for four wheel drives only. If you want to get to Cooktown in a regular car, you have to backtrack and go 100 km inland before heading another 200 kms north.
We didn't go as far as Cooktown. Instead we waded along the sand at Cape Tribulation -- which Captain Cook named after he ran his ship onto the Barrier Reef -- and dipped our toes in the 30 degree water, keeping a close eye out for crocs. We stopped at a small tropical fruit orchard and had ice cream made with wattle seed and black sapote. We peered through the dust-storm haze to try and glimpse Mount Sorrow, also named by Capt. Cook (he was having a really rough time when he explored this part of the coast). And we hiked the trails where we'd been told we might see a cassowary. No luck.
A few days later, we stopped for the night at Mission Beach. This funky little beach town is known as cassowary central: the warning signs were the size of billboards, and the caravan park had photos of cassowaries walking right past the camp kitchen. The woman at the front desk said the birds didn't come to the park any longer, since they had been relocated, but she told us we had a good chance of seeing them if we hiked the fan palm trail.
The trail was lovely -- fan palms are really striking, and they cast a dappled, lime green light over the whole place. The narrow track twists and turns through the forest, and at times you can't see more than five metres down the track, which made me have second thoughts about whether I wanted to run into a deadly kicking bird at such close quarters. I needn't have worried, though: once again, we reached the end of the trail without a sign of a cassowary.
We're back in southeast Queensland now, and unless we go back to Australia Zoo we have absolutely no chance of seeing a cassowary. On Sunday morning I was chatting to a man about our travels in the north and told him of our quest. He said his brother recently moved to Cape Tribulation. And has he seen any cassowaries, I asked? The man shook his head. "Been there five months, and hasn't seen one." It made me feel a bit better.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Road trip part 3 -- hot springs and red dirt

When we were preparing for our sojourn in Australia, I found myself making lists of the things I wanted to see and do. Some were very touristy (Opera House, Australia Zoo, Great Ocean Road), some related to regular life (taste Vegemite, sample lots of different wines, watch Aussie rules football). And some were just a bit quirky. Among the latter was my desire to camp in an open field of red dirt.

Every Australian road movie I've ever seen has a scene where people pull out their bedroll in the middle of a dry red plain and sleep under the stars. We don't sleep under the stars in Canada -- the bugs eat you if you try, and there's almost always a heavy dew. But in the drier parts of Australia, apparently, there are no mosquitoes, it doesn't rain much, and there's little dew, so a tent becomes superfluous. Instead you roll out your sleeping bag and bed down. If you want something a little more enclosed, you use a swag (yep, like the one that jolly swagman had when he sat down beside the billabong).

We've done a lot of camping this year, most notably during our two week road trip to the north where we camped every night, but almost all of our trips have been along the coast, where a tent is desireable. So far I've not slept under the stars. But I did manage to get a night sleeping in a red earth plain.

It was at a spot called Inott Hot Springs. We had been travelling across a farming region known as the Atherton Tablelands, and were looking at a place to stop for the night. Sharon was browsing through a directory of caravan parks while I drove. "Hey," she said. "This one says they have hot springs. Six of them." She glanced at the address and then at the map. "It's a bit out of our way, but what do you think?"

"Sounds good to me," I said. Sharon called the campground on the mobile to reserve a spot for the night. She had an odd look on her face when she hung up.

"They said you don't reserve a spot," she said. "You just show up."

"Could be interesting," I said.

The Kennedy Highway is Qld Highway 1, which begins in Cairns and runs south and west until... well, until you get farther west than any sane person would really want to go. We were only a couple of hours from the coast, but we soon began to feel like we were getting near to the black stump. The land got flatter and drier, and soon we started to see massive termite mounds in the fields. Then we saw a warning sign: watch for stock on the road. No fences. In other words, the cows here just roam free because there's so little traffic and so few cows that it's not worth the hassle of fencing them in.

It was getting late when we arrived at Innot Hot Springs Holiday Village, and the owners were just sitting down to enjoy a beer. "Campsites are over there," they said, waving vaguely to the west. "Just pick a spot and we'll settle up in the morning."

The campground consisted of a few fenced acres of dirt -- dirt that was, if not "red centre" dirt, at least sufficiently russet to make me feel very happy with our decision. A couple of block buildings housed a camp kitchen and toilets. There was a small motel, and at the centre of it was a fenced area that contained the swimming pools. There were six of them in all, ranging from 20 to 43 degrees -- the three warmest ones were enclosed, with signs stating that children under 15 weren't permitted in.

We quickly pitched the tent and hit the pools. The water had a powerful mineral scent -- sulphur among others -- but it was relaxing. In one of the pools we chatted with a woman from Townsville, who said she used to be a dancer. She said she comes to the springs every 8 to 9 months to soak, whenever her body starts to feel a bit stiff and sore.

Whether it was the mineral water, the hot water, or the stillness of the outback, that night we all slept more soundly than we had in weeks. I was sorely tempted to pull my bedroll out of the tent and sleep under the stars, but decided I would pass on that experience until I had a chance to discuss it with a knowledgeable Aussie. To be honest I was just a bit afraid of what sort of critters might come visiting in the night.

The next morning I awoke early, about 5, and slipped out of the tent. In the distance I could see steam rising in the early morning air, so I grabbed the camera and went to investigate. It turned out to be the creek where the hot springs bubble up, 72 degree water that comes up from the ground, hot enough to make tea if you don't mind sulphrous tea. Upstream from the spring, the water is 18 or 20 degrees. Immediately downstream it's too hot to stand in. Even the sand is hot.

Apparently there have been hotels and baths on this site for a century or more. These days there are two -- the caravan park and motel on one side of the creek, and a motel and pub on the other. Other than that, there's nothing for miles but reddish dirt, termite mounds, gum trees and, apparently, some thin and hungry cows. Someone told us the caravan park is for sale, asking price somewhere over $3 million.

Seeing hot springs wasn't part of my plan for Australia. But camping in a field of red dirt... Check that one off the list.

Photos are here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Road trip part two: a very special pub

Like most people who grow up in a house where there's lots of music, I marinated in my parents' music when I was a child. Since they had fairly broad tastes, I ended up soaking up a few odd influences, including a bit of Aussie music. They owned several Rolf Harris records, which my sister and I listened to over and over. Never mind Tie Me Kangaroo Down; to this day I can sing every verse of The Court of King Caractacus, should the need ever arise (it hasn't so far, but it's good to be prepared). There was also a single Australian 45: Slim Dusty singing A Pub With No Beer. It was this record that had us stopping at Lee's Hotel in Ingham.

We had driven through Ingham on the way north, even commenting on Lee's Hotel as we went past -- or at least, commenting on the life-size statue of a cowboy on a horse that is perched on the hotel's roof. But it wasn't until later that I realized that Lee's Hotel marked the site of Dan Sheahan's dry evening.

Sheahan was a farmer in the area, and one evening in 1943 he rode 20 miles into Ingham to have a pint. Unfortunately there was an American military base in the area, and the American soldiers had consumed every drop of beer in the pub. Sheahan had to make do with a glass of wine, so he sat down and penned a poem about how sad it was to be in a pub with no beer.

The poem got published in the local paper, the clipping was passed to a singer, who passed it on to another, and eventually it got to Slim Dusty who turned it into a song. The poem had changed quite a bit by then, but it was still recognizeable as Sheahan's, and eventually he was credited as the author.

The original pub was torn down in the 60s, and replaced with Lee's Hotel. It was mid-afternoon when we came into Ingham for the second time, and we still had a few miles to go before we stopped for the night. But I knew I would regret it if I didn't stop in and tip my hat to Sheahan's creativity and to my parents' record collection, so we found a parking spot on Ingham's main street. (That's not a difficult task: not only is Ingham a fairly quiet town, but it has one of the widest main streets I've ever seen. To walk from one side to the other you step off the sidewalk, walk past one row of angle-parked cars, cross two lanes of traffic, past another row of angled parking, and up onto a grassy strip wide enough to have its own picnic area. You are now at the middle of the street, and need to do it again to get to the other side. By which time you're ready to pop into Lee's for a beer.)

"Care to join me for a pot?" I asked Sharon. She just smiled. "No, you just go do what you have to do," she said. The kids were watching a movie in the back seat, apparently unaware that we had stopped, so I grabbed a camera and headed in.

At first glance, the bar at Lee's looks like a fairly typical pub: long bar along one side, pool table in the back, two t.v.s showing different programs, blackboards advertising the upcoming pool comp and pub draw. The barmaid and the only customer were watching a 1970s disaster film on one of the t.v.s, laughing about how long it was taking before the hero's helicopter inevitably crashed into a cliff.

What set the bar apart was a wall of tribute to Sheahan. An enormous plaque told the tale of his poem, and featured both the original and the more famous song version. Beside it was a mass of newspaper and magazine clippings, telling other versions and details of the tale.

"Pot of Four X Gold please," I said to the barmaid. (A pot is a small beer, a little smaller than a half pint. A schooner is the next size up, and it was a hot day, but the family was waiting in the car. I had to be reasonable.) I sipped my beer, read the plaque, and eventually asked the barmaid if she would take my picture in front of it.

"You'd be amazed at the number of people who take their pictures here," she said. As if to prove her point, a moment later a woman came into the bar and took a photo of it. "It's for my dad," she explained. "He loves this song."

Mine too, I thought as I finished my beer and walked out into the sunshine.

"All good?" Sharon said as I climbed in the car.

"All good," I replied.

Thanks mum and dad. Thanks Slim Dusty. Thanks Dan Sheahan.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Road trip part one: Paronella Park

Wow, what a lot of country there is in Queensland! We just spent two weeks touring up north, saw much, and missed a great deal more. Over the next few days I'll try to put together a few thoughts on some of the highlights of the trip, including a map. Today: Paranella Park.

The bible of our trip so far has been Lonely Planet's guide to the East Coast of Australia. It's well-written, informative, and usually pretty accurate. But sometimes it misses the mark. Paronella Park is one of those times. Barely rating a mention in the text, and not even listed in the index, we might have missed it entirely if our friends Mike and Erika hadn't told us about stopping there during their tour of the north.

You can find the whole history of the place here if you're interested, but here's the thumbnail version. Early in the last century, a Catalan fellow named Jose Paronella got engaged to a girl in his home town, and left to make his fortune in Australia promising to return to her when he was rich. 13 years later, he came back only to find that she had married someone else (she waited 8 years, he hadn't written a word, and she decided enough was enough). The family, to save face, offered him her younger sister instead, so Jose took her and returned to Australia. He had indeed become rich, buying and selling cane farms primarily, so he decided to build her a Spanish castle in the Australian bush.

For the next 20 years, until his death in 1948, Jose built his castle. It wasn't a private place; it was built as an attraction, a place where people could come and buy ice cream, swim at the foot of the waterfall, stroll through the gardens. Since it was located on what was, at the time, the main highway, it did pretty well too, attracting hundreds of people every weekend. Some of it was cutting edge: there was a ballroom which doubled as a cinema, powered by electricity from Jose's own hydro plant; the tunnel of love was originally supposed to be lined with enormous aquariums, although that plan had to be abandoned; the ballroom featured the first mirrored "disco ball" anyone in the state had ever seen, imported from California.

After Jose died, the park passed through various family hands, and eventually was sold. Keeping it open was obviously a huge effort, a battle against fires, floods, cyclones, and all the other excitement Queensland's tropics have to offer. When the Bruce Highway was built 30 kms or so to the east, the road became a very quiet backwater. Eventually Paronella Park was just abandoned. For 20 years or so it sat vacant, a crumbling ruin in the jungle beside a small caravan park. In 1993, a couple named Mark and Judy Evans stayed at the caravan park while travelling the country with their children. They toured as much of the site as they could, and fell in love with it. Eventually they bought it, traced its history, and started clearing away the jungle.

The result is this really quite magical place. More than anything else, it reminded me of the ruins where King Louis lives in The Jungle Book: even though the architecture is Spanish rather than Indian, and there are no monkeys to be seen, there's still that sense that this is a place that was once quite remarkable, and which has been here for hundreds of years.

The caravan park is still there. Since your admission fee includes both day and night tours, as well as a site at the caravan park, we camped there overnight. That meant we got to see the site at night, which was particularly cool: we watched fireflies, saw the fountains lit up, fed masses of eels that inhabit the waterfall pool, and saw tiny baby bats in the tunnel of love.

Above all, it's pretty clear that Paronella Park is a tribute to the energy and vision of Jose Paronella. He designed everything and did almost all the work himself, just hiring a couple of local guys to help him with a bit of the heavy lifting. If he were still alive he would no doubt be clinically diagnosed as -- to use the technical term -- an obsessive nutjob, and I have not doubt he must have been a royal pain in the ass to live with. But what a creation he made.

I'm not sure whether the place will last for long. The sand Jose used in the cement apparently has an algae in it which is slowly eating the place. On top of that, cyclones and floods seem to be quite regular events in that part of the country. It may be that, 20 years from now, the whole place will have vanished back into the jungle. But for now, it's a remarkable place and well worth stopping.

I've posted some photos here.