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.

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