Saturday, 3 September 2011

Camping Trip Around Queensland.

During July, 1964 I saw an advertisement in the newspaper which I replied to immediately . It was for a bus camping tour of the State of Queensland towards the end of August (winter down under). I booked a seat and, on Monday, August 24, I was up very early and called a cab to take me down to the main bus station in Brisbane.

I was nonplussed to discover that the vehicle I was to board was a rejuvenated school bus! Not to worry - that was merely the shuttle up the Toll Bar Road to Toowoomba. The official buses (two of them) had been driven up from Sydney with passengers from the south and were waiting there - 28 seat motor coaches. My first seat was in the back and I was the companion of a middle-aged woman named Clare. She and I were 'partners' for the entire trip. She was a veteran camper - I was not - and the deal was that I would be collecting the firewood while she pitched both of our tents. We got along famously.

If memory serves me correctly, I was - at 29 - the youngest person on that trip.

As for being in the back seat - the capacity of each bus was 28 passengers and, each day when we boarded the bus, we moved one seat. We began in the rear seat but worked our way up to the seat behind the driver followed by the seat immediately behind the front door and then, row by row, back to the rear seat. The system worked well.

From Toowoomba we headed west along a highway that was very good for most of that day - paved for quite a while, then a well maintained gravel highway which eventually deteriorated to being no more than a couple of ruts in the dirt and the sand. The latter condition did cause some concern but the driver was skilled and we never became bogged down (nor did the other bus).

Inland Queensland - like the Canadian/American plains - is a wheat and crop growing area. Eventually, though, 'farmland' gave way to grazing for both cattle and sheep. We went through many towns and hamlets and we were a 'seven day wonder' in many of those hot and dusty places.

The further we went the further apart became the settlements and we stopped at stations ('ranches') for water and road directions. One of those stations was called Roseberth which - for us - was a source of amusement as well as pathos. The buses stopped there so that the drivers could ask directions for the remaining distance to the hamlet of Birdsville - considered to be the most remote community in Australia.

When the drivers got off the buses in order to confer with the Station Manager members of his family came out of the house to view the wonder of the vehicles and the passengers. One of the residents was a little boy of about 3 or 4 years. He was heard to exclaim, "Look at all the people! There must be a hundred head on there!". I don't believe that any of us had ever been referred to as cattle before - or since!

The pathos for we passengers came when we realized that this was where a tragedy had unfolded the previous Christmas. A young man had come out from England to work on the station and his parents and a sibling followed in order to spend Christmas with him. The lad was excited and decided to go down to Adelaide where he would buy a car and then meet the ship. From reports, the meeting was successful and then the young man set out to drive his family to the station up in Queensland. It was known that the family had passed through Marree (where I had changed trains while on my way to Alice Springs) and then vanished. Eventually the car was found and, nearby, the bodies of that family who had tried to cross the unfamiliar desert in the heat of summer.

From Roseberth Station the bus drivers drove the remaining 18 miles to Birdsville where we camped for the night - and where our arrival was a huge sensation. At that time Birdsville had a population of about 50 people - 12 white and 38 Aborigines. Needless to say, some of those residents were real characters. You couldn't have paid me enough money to live there - nor could you have paid those residents to live anywhere else!

Upon leaving Birdsville the bus drivers took us south to the South Australian border. This allowed us to claim that, indeed, we had driven on the Birdsville Track (a storied route Down Under) and also gave us a view of the terrible terrain which the British family had tried to cross on their fateful trip.

From Birdsville we traveled for many miles over roads that, sometimes, were no more than tracks across the desert. However - unlike the photos we have seen of the Sahara and other world deserts - while there was some sand (and a number of colorful sand dunes) - much of the land was pebbly with shrubs and spinefex (a low growing cactus like plant). At a couple of points the roads took us over the border into the Northern Territory and back. Lonely and dusty but still a fascinating trip. There were a number of river and stream crossings along that section and, mostly, they were concrete causeways across dry stream beds.

On the way we called into two large 'cattle stations' - Lake Nash and Austral Downs. Lake Nash was beautiful as it sits on the edge of a billabong which is a large pond left behind when the river stops flowing - that is until the monsoon rains return in the summer.

All along the route we saw Australian wildlife - lots and lots of emus but, surprisingly, only a few kangaroos - and most of them were road kill. The most awesome sight was the bird life - many many cockatoos and at least one flock of colorful parrots. Further on were ant hills (both red and grey) - a misnomer as the insects actually are a variety of termites. One other 'wild thing' that was in abundance out there - as they were in Alice Springs - were flies. Probably you have seen photos of outback people wearing 'bush hats' decorated with pieces of cork tied at the ends of strings hanging from the hat brims. These are to prevent flies from landing on moist parts of the face - mouth, nostrils and eyes.

Communities in the central northern part of Queensland are storied - because they were landing places for aircraft that were fighting the Japanese in Indonesia and New Guinea. Burketown and Normanton (both on the Gulf of Carpentaria) are two of them. We visited both of those places - then sleepy small towns after their glory days during World War II.

The next leg of the journey was up over the uplands to the east and down to Cairns on the coast.

The uplands had busy mining centers in the 19th century and many of them were then ghost towns. One community, though, had a fair sized deposit of agates - a semi-precious stone - and so we were able to purchase decorated pieces of jewelry.

From there we went on up to the top of the Continental Divide and onto the Atherton Tablelands. Up there - and down to the coast - the vegetation was mainly jungle. There is one well known site which we visited - a curtain fig tree. The curtain fig is a parasite, not the fruit bearing fig but a relative, the seeds of which land in a crotch of another jungle tree where it sprouts sending tendrils down to the ground as roots. Eventually the host tree dies leaving this enormous parasite towering high in the jungle with its roots like a thick hemp curtain. To get there we left the buses down on the highway and walked up a well-marked trail. All around were the calls of birds and other tropical noises. I found the experience quite awesome!

A few miles away (all of these sites are located in a National Park) are two lakes. At the hotel on one of them the manager was persuaded into taking some of us out in his motor launch to the jungle on the other side. As we cruised in towards the shore we saw an enormous python resting on huge lily pads soaking up warmth from the misty sunshine. The temperature was 72F.

In my journal I noted that I would never forget the sighting of the snake - but I was wrong. Not having read my journal for a number of years I had completely forgotten about the python - but had a clear memory of the walk through the jungle to the curtain fig tree!

At the end of that day we were down on the coast in Cairns - that lovely northern city. We stayed there for a couple of days and, on one of them, many of us took the launch across to Green Island - the northern anchor of the Great Barrier Reef.

This was a few months after my trip to Heron Island and I could not help but to compare the two tropical paradises. Green Island is much closer to the mainland - only 1 1/2 hours to cross - while Heron is further and larger. As Green Island is closer to Cairns than Heron Island is to Gladstone, it is more developed.

When I crossed to Heron Island it was under relatively stormy conditions whereas the crossing to Green Island was on a lovely day - therefore the spectacular colors of the tropical sea were obvious - first bright blue, then emerald green (as we approached the Barrier Reef) and then milky green. I walked all the way around the atoll and then across it and visited the local aquarium before taking the launch back to the mainland.

There were two more excursions. One was the spectacular railway ride up the steep slope of the Tableland to a place named Kuranda. The train on which we traveled was fairly modern so it was possible to move from side to side in the car as the train went around curves opening new vistas. The station in Kuranda has flower beds on the platform and it is absolutely lovely.

Through my work at Dunlop Rubber I came to know the name of every community in Queensland and to be seeing many of these places for the first time was a real pleasure. Therefore I gladly accepted the opportunity to ride on the bus north from Cairns to Port Douglas passing through a number of other communities along the way. The escarpment angled to the northwest so the agricultural coastal plain became narrower and narrower. Still there were many fields of sugar cane along the way - as well as beaches beside the Coral Sea.

As the buses headed south along the coastal highway I saw more and more sugar cane - and even fires that were deliberately lit to burn out the underbrush (and chase out dangerous reptiles) so the cane cutters would have room to swing their machetes as they harvested the crop.

Two comments:-

Fires in the sugar cane fields are spectacular to watch - but not from the roadways. The order is "REMAIN IN YOUR VEHICLES!" Why? There are a number of types of poisonous snakes in Australia and the taipan - which lives in cane fields - is considered to be both the most ornery and the most deadly. No one in his right mind wants to meet an angry taipan - unless he is well armed with an instrument by which to kill it.

The second is the prevailing odor around burning sugar cane fields and around the mills which extract the sweet products from the cane. That aroma is of molasses - an overwhelming smell of molasses.

Leaving Cairns we traveled south to the larger city of Townsville. Most of the route was past cane fields and through the communities that thrived off of them. Some of the communities were picturesque while others were somewhat drab. One lovely town was Ingham - a lovely English name of a community that was almost entirely Italian!

The campground in Townsville was the loveliest one that we stayed at on this trip - but the 'regulars' there did not like us - we were up too early each morning! The grounds of this campground were well maintained and I camped beside a hibiscus bush the yellow flowers of which hung over my tent.

A few miles off of Townsville is the continental - as opposed to coral - Magnetic Island. Most of us spent the entire day over there. The island had three 'buses' which were converted flatbed trucks all gussied up. Each had a name (Flighty Flo, Nippy Nell and Galloping Gertie) with seats on the deck and a 'roof' of sorts overhead. They were free and one could hop on and off where ever one wished to.

After the day in Townsville (and on Magnetic Island) we continued south to the last major 'sugar town' of Mackay. There was a large sugar warehouse there into which we were able to look - at a mountain of brown sugar! I understand that the white sugar that we are used to seeing comes from local sugar mills located near where we grocery shop.

As we came nearer and nearer to Brisbane the towns (Maryborough, Gladstone, Bundaberg) were ones that I had visited while on trips north with Brisbane friends.

The people with whom I traveled were, by and large, quite nice. I do not remember one incident of hot temper and nasty words. One of the women on the other bus was a real character who 'read palms'. Normally I look upon the occult arts with a jaundiced eye but, towards the end of the trip, I allowed her to read my palm. It was a pleasant experience and I was amazed by what she perceived about me - most of it was absolutely correct!

If I had the chance would I book onto another trip like that one around Queensland? You bet I would!

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