Saturday, November 20, 2010

Week 31, Monday 11 – Sunday 17 October 2010

So Monday came and went in a blur...

On Tuesday we went in to Ray's workshop to see if the part had arrived. It hadn't. Another night in Cooktown then. To be fair to Cooktown, it's a grower. We didn't think that this town had much to offer at the start, but after going to the museums and the local pub we started to feel the appeal. It's probably cruel to mention that the biggest news for Cooktown was that the road in was bitumised in 2006... Seriously, since Capt cook landed in 1770 and the road got bitumised not a lot more has happened in Cooktown. But that's what is nice about the place, it feels like you are away from the rest of the world, and after spending almost a year out of civilisation that feels good to us. Almost normal.

Cooktown Harbour (where Cook managed to salvage the Endeavour having run aground on a reef offshore)

The great man himself (no, not the chef, England's opening batsman, but the original Capt'n Cook!)

Wednesday! The day the car got fixed (hopefully, fingers crossed, praying to whichever god has the better return). Thankfully the part did arrive and Ray fitted it for us first thing in the morning so we could head straight off towards Cairns. Sadly though, Ray wasn't convinced the new part would fix the problem so we just hoped and prayed that the advice we received from a few in the know mechanics would work. Back on the road again, south towards Cairns!

Some lovely views on the way over the hills towards Cairns,

and on the way into Cairns we stopped off at Palm Cove, a lovely little seaside town. We enjoyed having a perusal at a little gallery there, we even bought 2 paintings (well, prints, small prints!)

We made it into Cairns without the dreaded engine light coming back on, set up camp and got ourselves dressed smart as we were heading into the city to meet some very good friends of ours, Stacey and Jamie! (YEY) Jamie had to be up in Cairns for work so she combined it with a short holiday too, great idea! After a happy and long awaited reunion we headed out for dinner at the local RSL. We caught up on the news and had a decent meal with a few beers, bliss.
Sadly we had a lot of rain that night so in the morning we decided we'd be better off in a cabin, only $40 per night for a bed, kitchen and tv (with satellite tv so we could watch the footy), and it meant we could use the car in the day without having to pack up the tent. Best value indoor night we've had – you can pay over $40 for a powered site in some places.

The rain continued to fall on Thursday so after meeting Stacey, Jamie and Sim (Jamie's workmate) for a pizza lunch, we all went to the art gallery for a look around. We had decided that we all wanted to do one of the boat tours out to the biggest coral reef in the world, the Great Barrier Reef. Weather looked the best for Friday so we booked ourselves on the Tusa 5.

That afternoon we had cheeky afternoon drink at Salthouse – a very swish bar/restaurant on the harbour followed by a quick shower at the girls' hotel then dinner out with Simone, all very lovely!

Friday was our day out to the most famous reef in the world, The Great Barrier Reef.
Here's a few facts for you:

+ The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest reef system, it is composed of over 2,900 individual reef and has over 900 islands stretching for over 2,600 kilometres.
+ It can be seen from outer space, and tourism to the reef generates approximately AU$ 4-5 billion per year
+ Thirty species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises have been recorded in the Great Barrier Reef, six species of sea turtles come to the reef to breed. Two hundred and thirteen species of birds visit the reef or nest or roost on the islands, and seventeen species of sea snake live on the Great Barrier Reef (YUK!)
+ More than one and a half thousand fish species live on the reef

We got to the boat by 8am and were quickly given the lowdown on how the day would play out. Tusa offered a free scuba dive introduction which Claire, Stacey and I were interested in so we listened into the talk while we headed out to the reef. Thankfully it wasn't too rough on the water so I managed not to get sick. We got out there and I'm not sure why, but I was persuaded to wear a wetsuit, yes, me, wearing a wetsuit! I looked a right plonk but never mind.

We all jumped into the water and got straight out to go snorkeling. The reef was truly amazing and although Jamie tells us it is not as bright in colours as it was when she first visited it, some 15 or so years ago, we were very impressed. We had about 2 hours in the water at the first site, plenty of time to chase fishes with the Flip in it's underwater case...

Sadly, you may feel sea-sick while watching these as the current just throws you about a bit).

We got the call to go and take our scuba dive so headed back to the boat to suit up. When I got in the water I instantly didn't feel comfortable so opted not to continue with the dive and stripped the suit off and got back into the snorkeling instead. Claire felt ok so she continued with the scuba dive.

And the rest of us went off snorkeling and saw lots of fishes...

including one really big one!

We all got back on board for a so-so buffet lunch while we moved on to the second site for the day. By this point I had finally realised that the water was warm so took the silly wetsuit off and just had my swimmers and rashie on. The second site at Agincourt reef was almost as good, but was a bit rougher though so the waves threw you about a bit.

On the way back into Cairns we all did our best windswept and interesting poses (don't ask me, Claire's idea!)

(Jamie won!)

Back in Cairns we had a quick swim in the lagoon (a huge free swimming pool that the city has provided as you can't swim in the sea here due to the crocs) then Claire and I then went home for dinner and to collapse after a long and fun day.

On Saturday the girls hired a car so we could all go for a drive out of Cairns and into the hinterland that surrounds it. It is absolutely lovely up in the hills, all green and lush, not what you would expect from Australia! We had a full day driving through Gordonsvale (this is the place the cane toad was first introduced to Australia), up into Yungaburra, stopping at Lake Tineroo for some coffee and scones, then up through Atherton and on to the Barron Falls. It was raining again so we didn't get the best view of the falls, but the force of the water was immense and quite wonderful. We didn't take the camera because of the rain (doh!), so here's a photo of Stacey and me at the Curtain Fig Tree near Yungaburra instead!

After a full day on the road we came back into Cairns for a rather lovely meal at Salthouse restaurant. The girls shouted our drinks for the evening cos they think we're poor... thanks girls, we had a fabulous evening!

Sunday was our sad goodbye to the girls then we did boring boring washing!
Then watched the English Premiership so all ended well..

Signing off folks,
Jen, of Claire and Jen fame

Week 30, Monday 4 – Sunday 10 October 2010

So we'd made it up to the Cape, though not yet to the very northerly tip of mainland Australia. Rather than explore further on Monday, we decided to collapse at Seisia for a day and relax, sitting in our little hut, Jen catching up on some internet time, and me planning our route back down the Cape. We spent some time chatting to the groups around us as well. There was an older couple who had come up from Cooktown who were regulars at Seisia. A group from Victoria who'd balanced the trip by having their wives fly up to Cairns with the two men making the 3,000km journey up there as a boys trip in their Landcruiser. And a young couple with their son were there for a few days to explore Thursday Island to see whether or not mum and son would be happy living on such a remote island as dad had been offered a job. Its fair to say that, the further from civilisation you get, the friendlier people are!

Beach at Seisia

Another tough day at the office

Jen at camp (catching up on the fantasy football internet gossip!)

Ingenious signs for the shower blocks too (Sheila, I think you'll like these...)

On Tuesday we drove up to the tip itself and had our photo taken with the sign to prove we'd been there!

Jen at the Tip!

We made it!

We'd toyed with the idea of taking a bottle of champagne to open at the tip, but with alcohol limitations in the aboriginal settlements on the Cape and the cost of champagne in this country, we decided we'd make do with a beer back at camp. Luckily for us though we met John Casella and his son Philip, who'd raced from the Hunter Valley in NSW all the way up to the tip in a week! The Yellow Tail winery is their family vineyard, but John had indulged in some French champagne to celebrate their achievement in reaching the tip of Australia, and insisted we share a glass (well, a plastic cup!) with them.

We drank this with our last rations of English Dairy Milk chocolate and watched turtles coming up for air in the rough strait between the mainland and York Island. We think they were probably Olive Ridley Turtles, an added bonus for reaching the tip.

Then we drove out to Somerset beach, which we'd heard was lovely. We were a little disappointed with it, though the overcast weather perhaps hindered its appearance. We started to head out on the sand track to the east, but didn't make it far as Jen felt we were pushing our luck to be testing poor Priscilla further with a deep sandy track. We turned back, which proved to be a very good decision. Back on the corrugated road towards Bamaga the engine warning light lit on up the dashboard. We stopped. Turned the engine off. Started again.... Fine until we got above 2,000 revs, at which point the light came back on. Mild panic set in. We limped the 20kms back to Bamaga keeping the revs below 2,000 to the mechanic there for testing.

The computer test suggested we had a problem with the fuel pump – the mechanic said these pumps don't stand up to any contamination, and a new pump would be a $6,000 job! Severe panic set in. The first step though was to replace the fuel filter and see whether that would sort the problem – the manager of the shop said there are three types of diesel, Australian diesel, Japanese diesel and Bamaga diesel – Bamaga fuel being particularly low grade and subject to contamination. He said they'd had people with a similar problem get all the way back down to Cairns with the engine light on, but he couldn't guarantee anything. So, with the new fuel filter in and our pockets $215 lighter thanks to remoteness tax payable on all things in Bamaga, we headed back to our Seisia campground for the night to lick our wounds. We made some calls and did some research on the internet, and the news was not good – Bamaga prices dictated a 30% uplift, but it still seemed to be a $3-4,000 if the pump needed overhaul back in civilisation. And that was only if we could get her that far.....

So on Wednesday we got up and set off south. We'd hoped to take our time heading back down the Cape, planning to head out to the East to visit Captain Billy's Landing and Iron Range National Park, but it wasn't to be. Instead we drove around 400kms south around the bypass roads then down the developmental track back to Archer River for the night, one eye on the engine warning light, expecting it to come on any minute. It didn't. At Archer River we met up with a lovely guy who we'd talked to on our way up the Old Telegraph Track a few days before. He was travelling with his family in a 4wd campervan/people carrier, but his radiator had cracked, and he was stuck in Archer River waiting for the part to be delivered so he could fix it. If it didn't arrive on Friday, he'd have to wait another week until the next post delivery plane flew into Archer River – everyone on Cape York has some story of wreckage to tell!

On Thursday we set off south again, and made it a further 300kms to Laura. We were beginning to feel that the pump must be ok, so elected to take a different route back to Cooktown, via the Battlecamp Road. This is meant to be a lovely drive and the same distance as going down through Lakeland then back across the bitumen to Cooktown. We made it fewer than 20kms up the red road before the engine light came back on. We stopped. Started the engine again, the light went off. With the light off, we crawled back to Laura to get phone signal so we could call for roadside assistance. There we spoke to RACQ who got their mechanic in Cooktown on the line. I explained the recent history, and our concern that we had an issue with the fuel pump, expecting to be told he'd come and get us and not to drive any further. Instead, the mechanic (Ray), was a lot more positive and said that as long as we weren't having any issues with power, we should continue on – the engine light may be coming on for a different reason, or we may have an electrical issue.

Not confident, but pleased to hear a mechanic with a different perspective, we set off south again and made it back to the Lion's Den pub, just south of Cooktown. Nice views around Lakeland as the sunset on our way there.

The engine light didn't come back on, and Priscilla didn't seem to be handling any differently to before. At the Lion's Den we had a pizza and a few beers, chatting to a nice couple who were heading to Airlie Beach to manage a carpet business while the owners went on holiday. We inscribed our names on the wall to confirm we'd made it to the Tip, then had another fitful night worrying about poor Priscilla.

On Friday we headed to Cooktown and Ray's vehicle repair and servicing shop. Unfortunately when his mechanic ran the computer check, it confirmed the same error code, suggesting we did indeed have a problem with the fuel pump. The mechanic said they'd had some success with replacing the primer on the filter, as this can sometimes be sucking air which causes the engine light to come on, but it wasn't fail-safe. He said he'd leave it to Ray to talk to us about it. Ray came back later and asked what we'd decided – confusing us to the extreme since we were expecting some guidance from him. He said he thought we should just drive back down to Cairns and see the Nissan Dealer there, which wasn't entirely helpful.

We left, confused and pretty frustrated. I called a lot of diesel mechanics and Nissan dealers in the area, but only found one guy who was familiar with the issue. Thanks to Glen at Nissan in Innisfail though, you were our only ray of light! Glen said this was a common problem, and diesel mechanics in the area were replacing the primer on the filter as a first step to fix the issue. It cost around $400 and couldn't be guaranteed to work, but if it did work, it saved around $3,000. I had another fitful night, during which I decided I didn't want to drive 300kms to Cairns or 400kms to Innisfail, not knowing whether Priscilla would make it, when there was a potential fix they could run in Cooktown. We called back into Ray, who was clearly overrun and working through his Saturday, but agreed to see us again on Monday about ordering and fitting the primer.

We spent the rest of Saturday exploring Cooktown and visiting the Captain Cook Museum (which was excellent), catching up on washing and having a swim at the lovely (if expensive) caravan park.

Sunday was more of the same, we cleaned the car (red dust gets EVERYWHERE!), had a swim in the pool and tried desperately to catch up on the blog – as you may have noticed, we failed on that count!

So week 30 started with a bang, but ended with a whimper. Keep your fingers crossed for Priscilla for us, she's clearly feeling the strain of a year off-road!

Love to all,
Claire, of Jen and Claire Fame

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Week 29, Monday 27 September – Sunday 3 October 2010

To Cape, or not to Cape, that was the question. We'd been debating whether or not we'd make the trip up to Cape York pretty much since the day we set off from Sydney. Our original plan had been to travel up there with MaznAlex, but they rather inconsiderately decided to get pregnant, so Cape York with Tin Fish was off*. Our back stop was to go with the Patrol Club who were going in August, but as we didn't actually make it to Queensland until the end of September, that too was tricky.

The ideal time to do Cape York seems to be August/September towards the end of the dry season, when the water in the numerous creek crossings has dropped a bit – still challenging, but less likely to be vehicle wrecking. October is normally fine too, but this year there was a general consensus that the wet season was coming early, and October may be leaving it a bit late. Especially for two Pommy girls on their own!

We were still debating whether or not to go as we left Cairns to head north to the Daintree and Cooktown, and had decided to talk to as many people as we could on route about it, and to keep an eye on the weather. Before leaving Cairns we did some chores, shopping, filling the gas cylinder and getting two new tyres for Priscilla in case we did opt to head up to the Cape (another $680, ouch!) While having the tyres fitted we popped into the Opposite Lock 4wd store next door and had a chat to the manager there. Like most people who've been to the Cape, he was more than happy to get his map out and share his experiences with us. He was of the view we'd have no trouble and should do it. We were edging closer...

That afternoon we did the coastal drive north and stopped at Ellis Beach for the night, a lovely little spot with palm trees fringing the beach, and lovely warm waters – my first swim in the ocean since Broome!

The next morning we continued north to the Daintree, taking the car ferry over the river, and exploring the area in Priscilla. Unfortunately the weather was pretty grey and moody, so we didn't get the best impression of the rainforests or the beaches here (note the name, we were a bit slow on the uptake about the “rain” part). We did see our first Cassowary though, a bizarre big bird, similar to an emu. Unlike the emu though, we've been told it can be very aggressive to humans! Next time we see one we might not be hassling it for photos quite so much!

We had a very, very wet night in the Daintree, totally soaked. The amount of rain made us wonder if the wet season had come early. Numerous locals though pointed out that the Daintree is a rainforest, and what did we expect?! Two guys with a ute and baby caravan came over to chat and said they were planning to head up to the Cape in mid-October, and they weren't worried about the weather conditions. The general Aussie consensus we were getting in the face of our procrastination about the Cape seemed to be “you'll would be fine, grow a pair why don't you?!”

That day we took the Bloomfield track up towards Cooktown. This used to be a hardier 4wd track, but despite the rain the creeks were pretty low, and the tough uphill climbs have been concreted, so it wasn't much of a challenge for Priscilla. Nice drive though, with a fantastic waterfall (Wujal Wujal) at the end – not the biggest we've seen, but incredibly powerful.

Just before you hit the bitumen road to head into Cooktown after the Bloomfield, there is a fantastic pub called the Lion's Den. Everyone seems to pass through on their way back from the Cape to write on the walls about their exploits. There's pleasant camping out the back so we decided to stop the night and have a few beers. We left the car to head into the pub at about 6.30pm, and returned about 9pm to be reminded of the old Thursday morning's at Glastonbury – having put the tent up in relative solitude, we found ourselves completely surrounded by tents and 4wds (ok, not so many 4wds at Glasto!) A large group from Brisbane had just made their way back down from the Cape and had set up around us in the dark. They'd had a good trip, had all been down the famous Gunshot Creek, and seemed to think we'd have no troubles up there.... More encouragement for Claire. Jen and Priscilla I suspect were less enthused!

Jen was very happy though on two counts.

1. in Cairns we'd found a replacement pair of her favourite shoes, the Santa Cruz Crocs! Her first pair were actually a much, MUCH brighter green. Can you guess which ones are the new ones???

2. we found the prettiest green tree frog in the shower block at the pub. Meet Jen's new best friend, later idenified as the Dainty Tree Frog:

On Thursday we headed to Cooktown where we'd decided we would make our final call on the Cape. We discussed the trip with the helpful chap in the Visitor Information, who said we should be fine, but shouldn't leave it much longer. We decided to head off the next day. Cape York is one of “The” Australian 4wd trips, and the truth is I was desperate to do it. I think its fair to say that Jen wanted to do the trip, but was less willing to risk life and limb to do so.... But the idea of it was under my skin, so Jen raised her eyebrows and agreed and Priscilla sighed at the prospect of 2000 more kilometres of dirty corrugated roads and off we set. Me with a rather large grin!

We travelled about 700kms from Cooktown to Archer River on Friday, about half way up the Cape. The roads were generally fine, red dirt, some corrugations, but nothing too sinister. The worse part was the first section of dirt road immediately after Lakeland, which was rocky and unpleasant. Pretty surrounding landscape though, with forested hills dropping into the plains surrounding us in the distance, and plenty of banana plantations. We passed through Laura, opting not to stop for the aboriginal artwork on the basis we'd see it on the way back through. We were trying to get to the tip of the Cape where we knew we could get phone signal by Sunday night so we could try to get Glastonbury tickets online – nothing like a deadline to make a 4wd trek more interesting! So we passed through Laura, stopped for fuel at Hann River, drove by Musgrave Roadhouse without stopping, tried to fill up on fuel unsuccessfully at Coen (the shop had just closed!) before stopping the night at Archer River (where we had to pay an extra 30 cents per litre on the already expensive $1.50 per litre price at Coen!).

It was a pleasant camp spot, but there was some terrible screaming and bawling from the local aborigines down by the river that night – rather unsettling. We found out later that there had been a funeral so there was a large gathering for “sorry business”. Unfortunately fuelled by alcohol, it sounded more like Saturday night pub closing time on Vicar Lane in Leeds... Not ideal.

The next day we continued north on fairly good dirt roads passing the turn off west to the mining town of Weipa, stopping at Moreton Telegraph Station to use their loo (where Jennie managed to slam her finger in the car door somehow, resulting in some tears,a nasty swelling and blood) and onto Bramwell Junction where we stopped for fuel before starting on the Old Telegraph Track proper. This track is the 4wd enthusiast's bounty. It follows the path of (you guessed it) the old telegraph line which was put in during the 1880's, and linked (via a submarine cable) morse code communications between Thursday Island and Brisbane. Some of the old telegraph poles are still standing, although most have been bent over and pillaged by said 4wd enthusiasts for their ceramic caps.

First up of the many creek crossings was Palm Creek. We'd been warned by a number of people that this was actually the worst one on the track, and had met one couple who opted to take the longer, but far safer, bypass roads avoiding the creek crossings after seeing this first one, only a couple of kilometres in. Having heard of such horrors, we were pleasantly surprised to find a severely washed out, reasonably steep, but dry crossing. Jen guided and Priscilla clambered down the slope comfortably.

Next came the Ducie River, South and North Alice Creek and Dalhunty River crossings, all of which were fine. We were beginning to enjoy ourselves! Huge termite mounds here

and here's an telegraph pole that hasn't been pulled down!

Then Bertie Creek, which was really pretty. For this one we entered down a washed out sandy-bank, then hung a sharp right along the rocks with the creek flowing next to us on the left, crossing it about 20 meters further along. It was easy enough, though lots of potholes to watch out for, so Jen guided Priscilla across. Once again, pretty easy, not deep at all, and the water was crystal clear to see any obstacles (e.g. holes!)

Not long after we had a choice to make – carry on up to Gunshot Creek 12kms further on, or take the chicken route round through Heathlands Ranger Station. We decided we had to at least take a look at Gunshot to decide whether we could do it or not, so pushed on up the increasingly narrow and rough sandy track. By the time we reached Gunshot, we had little appetite for heading back down the rough track we'd been on to get there! We had the radio on scan, and heard a group chatting (two vehicles we'd seen earlier in the day who had gone around the chicken route and were approaching Gunshot from the north). We clapped our hands with glee – we were desperate to see someone else tackle Gunshot first. But it soon became clear they weren't planning on doing it themselves, but were more than happy to encourage us to so they'd have some sport to watch!

There are a number of different approaches to Gunshot, the worst a vertical 10 foot white muddy drop into a murky looking pool at the bottom. The easiest route is to the south, still a 10 foot drop, but not quite vertical, and with a muddy bath at the bottom rather than a deep pool! We checked it out, the mud was only ankle deep, and although steep, the descent was probably not much worse than some of the things we'd done with the Patrol Club. With the Aussie gang egging us on, we decided to give it a go. And this is what it looked like (enjoy the sympathetic Aussie commentary!)...

I should note that Jen contributed to Priscilla's success in negotiating this tricky little obstacle by pushing her hand hard against the ceiling to stop us from toppling over! Scary as anything (honestly, it looked a lot worse in real life than it does when on the video, certainly from inside the car!), but a hell of a rush once we'd done it!

Exhausted and in severe need of a beer, we decided to stop the night at Cockatoo Creek 10kms further up the track with the friendly Aussies who'd kindly talked us into Gunshot! We had our own little private spot near the flowing creek, very pretty. Jen fed our resident brush turkey and we drank a couple of cold ones before sleeping rather heavily that night.

Sunday morning we awoke early for the next section of the OTL track up the Jardine River. Crossing Cockatoo Creek was no problem, the water no more than tyre deep, but once again we had to watch out for rock holes and shelves. We passed Sheldon Lagoon, a bizarre patch of water in the middle of the red desert

before heading on to cross Sailor Creek via a small wooden bridge, and stopping for a swim at the really lovely Fruit Bat Falls. A great reward for some tricky driving!

A few kilometres further up the track are Elliot Falls and Indian Head Falls – again, both really lovely. Unfortunately we didn't have these to ourselves, so Fruit Bat remains our favourite!

Just north of these picturesque little stops is Canal Creek, which was probably the worse crossing we made. It had a rough, washed out approach, a potholed and rocky (though not deep) water crossing, and a steep, rough washed out exit! Jen guided Priscilla and I through, and we took a bit of time, but made it in and out without any dramas.

Then we crossed Sam/Turkey Creek, which was deeper, but fine (and very pretty).

Then we came to an escape route from the rest of the OTL. We'd been warned that the creek crossings north of here were very deep, in particular Nolan's Brook at the northern end. Priscilla's drive belt was already squealing whenever wet and we were a bit nervous about getting stuck on our own (we had hoped to team up with someone for the whole of the OTL track if truth be told, but the only people we saw heading north were the Aussies we met at Gunshot, and we just weren't on the same timetable). These factors coupled with a need to get to Seisia by 6pm to start the Glastonbury ticket frenzy made up our minds - we decided that the last section of the OTL track up to the Jardine would have to wait until our next trip..... Along with quite a few other attractions!

So we took the exit route off the OTL track back onto the Northern Bypass Road, and followed that up to the Jardine Ferry Crossing, where we paid our $90 to travel about 20 metres across the (at this point) shallow river. People still cross the Jardine up at the top of the OTL track, but it sounds totally bonkers – much deeper than at the ferry crossing (up to 1.4 metres deep), 140 metres wide, fast-flowing and inhabited by saltwater crocs! This alternative made the $90 ferry ticket money well spent!

At Seisia, we found a nice little camp-spot complete with beach hut and sink, and settled in for the Glastonbury rush... We had no luck at all getting through as the internet site crashed again and again.... Thankfully Harn Crumbley (yes, she is indeed crumbley in name as well as nature now) got through and got tickets for us, so it was all worthwhile! Thank you Harn!

More from the tip of Australia in our next instalment, love to all,
Claire, of Jen and Claire Fame

* This blog is dedicated to Lexi Annabelle Towns - welcome to the world! We hope you'll see the whole of this beautiful country one day as we have - preferably in a 4wd! Were it not for you though, young lady, we would have had your parents for some moral and physical support on this little jaunt - next time, you're coming with us! xx

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Week 28, Monday 20 – Sunday 26 September 2010

After a very windy night (not Jen for once), much of Monday morning at Lawn Hill was spent on some running repairs. Jen spent the morning fixing our little temperature gauge (still going mum!) while I sat up in the tent stitching the canvas back together in the corner where the wind had done its worst.

Late morning we went and picked up a canoe and paddled up Lawn Hill Gorge and had a little swim in the water there before canoeing back at speed (well, as speedy as we get) to avoid incurring a charge for an extra hour, getting back with mere seconds to spare.

In the afternoon we explored the Wild Dog Dreaming walk to see the aboriginal art hidden in the rocks. We had a much calmer night that night thankfully, so the next day there was no need for further repairs. We had decided to head to a free camp at Gregory Downs, which had been recommended by a quite a few people on our travels, and took the scenic route down an unpleasantly rough and corrugated track to see the Riversleigh section of the park, a reputedly amazing fossil site. As we were in the area, we thought we'd call in. We hadn't expected the rough ride, and rather stupidly, had expected to see fossils that actually looked like the creatures they came from.

Save to say we were a little disappointed to be told that this....

was a crocodile....

You see?

Nice little walk though, and some good views

We pushed onto Gregory Downs along my favourite type of road – a red one.

Seeing some real life jackeroos at work on route.

Then we saw a car broken down ahead of us and reluctantly stopped to see if they needed help, past experiences of trying to help not having worked out so well. We saw two men at first, and slowed down, then stopped happily when we saw a pregnant lady with them! Their ute had broken down, not entirely unexpectedly it seemed, and they wanted to cadge a lift into Gregory Downs to call for help. Instead we gave them a tow the 15kms into Gregory Downs, then set off to find our free camp for the night. Lots of people had told us that this spot was nice, and they were right. Its right next to the fast flowing Gregory River, very pretty, and free!

We bumped into Clare and Frank, a couple we'd met in Lawn Hill earlier in the week who also had an ARB rooftop tent, and pooled our food together to cook a lovely roast beef on the campfire, followed by Clare's extraordinarily naughty, but equally lovely treacle dumplings with cream – yum!

On Wednesday we bid our farewells to Clare and Frank and set off for Normanton via Burketown, some 350 kms away. We stopped off to see the sights, such as they were, in Burketown and Normanton. At Normanton the red road finished, and we were back onto tarmac, a relief tinged with sadness! We had thought of staying at Normanton, and stopped to get photos of the large croc monument there (this is the largest croc known to have been shot in Australia – meet Krys, he was 8.63 metres long!)

Normanton didn't have a good vibe, so we pushed onto Croydon another 155kms down the road. Arriving a little late and tired, we decided to head to the local pub for a beer and an all too average dinner. By the time we left the rain had started to fall heavily, and Jen found a little friend in the laundry was love at first sight...

On Thursday we kept heading east, stopping in Georgetown for lunch where we met a random lady with her husband and baby, a large long-haired Afghan hound, really not the kind of dog you expect to find in Australia. Some bizarre conversations ensued, but we got a good recommendation for a camp-site at Mount Surprise called the Bedrock Caravan Park, a really lovely spot for us to clean up and feel less dusty after the long trip across the Top. Here we also helped the environment by partaking in a free under-body car wash... Its to stop the spread of seed weed, we're environmental warriors, ok?

After a lovely stop in Mount Surprise, we set off on Friday for the Undara Lava Tubes. We'd been debating whether or not we needed to spend the $46 entry fees to see these for some time, and decided we would stop. On reflection, I'm not sure we needed to bother, but perhaps we're just being a bit tight! It was interesting, if more for the concept than the actual sight of them. The Undara Tubes are the longest lava tubes in the world, formed when there was significant volcanic activity in the area around 190,000 years ago. To form the tubes, the lava had to flow at the right angle and speed through a natural depression. As the outer edge of the lava cooled, it solidified but the molten lava within it kept flowing, creating an underground labyrinth of huge tunnels. Lots of little bats live there now, and you have to pay a large fee to get in as the owner of the land managed to do a deal with the National Park to preserve the right to deliver tours himself – quite canny!

We also climbed up to the top of the Kalkani Crater, an “extinct” volcano, for some good views of the area and a bit of exercise! That night we camped at Archer River Rest Area, a free stop close to the Millstream Falls, which we visited the next morning on our way through to Ravenshoe. The Millstream Falls are Australia's widest falls.

We spent the rest of the day pottering around Ravenshoe, a cute little town at the beginning of the Atherton Tablelands, before exploring the tablelands themselves, visiting various waterfalls on the waterfall circuit around Millaa Millaa, and detouring briefly into the Misty Mountains. We spent about 2 hours driving around, constantly saying banal things to each other like “look how green it is!” “look at those beautiful rolling hills”! “look at the fat cows”! To be fair, we had come from this

to this

We headed back to Ravenshoe on Saturday afternoon to watch the AFL football final between St Kilda and Collingwood. It was a good game, ending in a draw, requiring a replay! Draws are very rare in a game with common scores of over 100 for each team, and it seemed no-one was prepared for this to occur in the final – its only the second time in the history of the game it has occurred in the Grand Final. Both teams left the pitch despondent, St Kilda with it all against them to pull out another performance to match the Collingwood favourites – sure enough, Collingwood won the replay the following week.

We camped the night at the local free campground next to the steam-train museum and awoke in the morning to explore the small market established next to us. We drove through the pretty Atherton Tablelands of Herberton, Atherton, Tolga and the not so pretty Mareeba, before making the steep climb up to Karunda, where we stopped for a bit more tourism at the various market stalls there. Then we headed down the steep steep slope to Cairns, and full civilisation. Well, a large population – their civility is a matter for individual opinion.

More of which next week,
Love Claire, of Jen and Claire Fame