Tuesday 9 May 2023

Going to the tip - or rather, coming down from it


Still thinking (see the last post) about my Cape York trip in 2006, it was really most notable for its ruggedness. Though other operators offer something similar, the company I did it with, Wilderness Challenge, doesn't seem to be in business any more, and I hope it's just because of the difficult times, and isn't a victim of TripAdvisor sniping.

Because, though the experience with WC was definitely rough and rugged in parts, it felt appropriate for the environment. I mean, we had several breakdowns in their beaten-up old OKA 4WD - two fan-belt failures, another with the aircon, then the steering and finally a suspension problem. That meant some sweaty, oily repairs by driver/guide Ossi while we paddled in cooling rivers. Said suspension was so primitive that he promised us at the beginning that anyone with back problems would be cured by the end, after a week of jolting along corrugated dirt roads - and so it was.

But everything else was great. Ossi, despite being a Finn, was a great interpreter of everything we saw; we stayed in a variety of comfortable and unique accommodation; the food was excellent; and the experience overall was terrific.

I mean, we stood at the tip of the continent. We travelled along empty red-dirt roads, we splashed through fords and crossed a river on a car-ferry. We walked along a boardwalk out into the gloriously peaceful Red Lily Lake, full of lotus flowers. We learned some fascinatingly colourful history, especially about the Jardine brothers' epic 10-month cattle drive south from Rockhampton (42 horses reduced to 12, 250 cattle down to 50 by the end). We saw fabulous clusters of tall termite mounds, a 1.75m deadly taipan, the rusty and dramatic wreck of a DC3, crashed in 1945, and followed the famous Overhead Telegraph road.

We saw beautiful beaches, passed through lush forest and over grassy plains, and had a satisfying swim at the picturesque Fruit Bat Falls ("where there's rocks, there's no crocs"). There in November, the end of the Dry, start of the Wet, we were still startled to see, above a river 5m lower than usual, a sign in a tree reading "14.5m we were here in a boat". There was a frog in my shower that night, and silent lightning outside.

We saw a Santa Gertruda cattle ranch, a Comalco bauxite mine and a photo at the camp ground of a croc eating a caught shark on the beach. We got fussy about spotting roadkill, sneering at one day's tally of just two snakes and a feral pig - though the eagle eating it was a pretty special sight. Most alarming was seeing a massive road train tanking along a dirt road towards us.

We noted that, despite converting to metric last century, Aussies still measure their crocs and sharks in feet, because the number's bigger. "We moved a 12 footer away yesterday," we were told at Lotus Bird Lodge, where we stayed in cabins reassuringly perched on stilts (because of flooding). We walked around the billabong there spotting, despite Dibdib, our Great Dane escort, many species of birds, as well as half a snake on the path (always better than a whole one). There was another frog in my shower that night.

Approaching Cooktown on the coast, we enjoyed the novelty of tar seal on the road, though we all regretted the loss of remoteness. I made the private discovery, after fossicking for windfalls along the town's footpaths, that you can eat too many mangoes. At the museum, we learned about the hideous history of blackbirding, and the very special nature of the Daintree rainforest.

And finally, after passing tea plantations and sugar cane fields, we arrived back in Cairns, where huge swarms of fruit bats flew that evening over the big man-made lagoon on the esplanade, towards a distant peninsula. The lagoon has been provided for public use, the sea being out of bounds because of crocs. Which we never actually saw. Not one.

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