FNQ is surprising – not that we had many expectations or assumptions about what this part of the country would be like, but we have seen a lot of different landscapes over the past week. An anthropologist could probably spend a lifetime exploring the myriad communities and organisations of people around here. This is a rich place – the soil, the history, the diversity of culture, nature, landscape and population. At least we think so.
After we last wrote we spent another day resting and recuperating in Mount Isa, with a late afternoon wander up to the water tank lookout in the middle of town. Spinning about you can see the whole town below you, from mine site to eastern city limits. There is a profound feeling of the sense of a place when you can see it all from a single vantage point. Perhaps that should be a better metric of when a town becomes a city, instead of some arbitrary population threshold.
Tuesday we set out to head east. But first we stopped in to check out the underground hospital. Built, never used, abandoned then restored, this small set of tunnels was the bomb shelter for the adjacent hospital during World War II. Many different artefacts from 1942 to more recent history are scattered about the tunnels and adjacent museum building. Medical science, and the creation of various tools and machines for surgery really has played an important part in the evolution of modern technology. We strolled through the adjacent heritage tent house, which had an excellent old map of the railways of Australia before returning to Gary to journey west. There was even a plaque commemorating the very first ever Royal Flying Doctor Service flight from Cloncurry to Mount Isa in 1927.
The drive between Mount Isa and Cloncurry was another really great drive! Through the nameless rolling hills, the morning light on the greenish spinifex and red rocky outcrops had some of the best characteristics of Karijini, the West Macdonnell Ranges and the Outback all rolling around together. Be careful of wandering cattle if you ever drive this road though, there are cows everywhere.
From Cloncurry we turned north, determined to at least catch a glimpse of The Gulf of Carpentaria. We made it as far as a free camp south of Normanton before it was time to stop for the night.
Wednesday we passed through Normanton and made in up to Karumba (Aye! Karumba!) on the coast. We lunched under leafy trees by some mangroves. More of that turquoise mudflats reminiscent of Darwin, Wyndham, Derby and Broome. Not a lot to see or do here unless you are into fishing. So we backtracked through Normanton and started to cross the base of the cape, aimed roughly at Cairns.
That night we free camped again, this time at a place called Cumberland Chimney, just west of Georgetown. An old dam has transformed into a very nice camping area with an abundance of birdlife. The chimney is a remnant of an old steam powered mine windlass. A deep and long nights sleep under thousands of stars, we made coffee in the chill and dewy morning before heading east again.
We made good time that morning to get to the Undara Volcanic National Park, just in time for the 1030 lava tubes tour… which was booked out. We had to wait until 1530 that afternoon to get to go on a guided adventure, so we decided to stay the night there as well.
We set up camp and then took a short pre-lunch hike up to Atkinsons Lookout for views across the National Park. This open dry eucalypt woodland is distinctly Australian. We see it here, the Great Western Woodland in southern Western Australia, outback New South Wales, central South Australia and parts of the southern Northern Territory. This type of landscape – fire burnt and regenerated sparse eucalypt trees with the odd acacia or other woody shrub scattered about is the quintessential ‘Australian Outback’ and one of the threads that has tied our whole adventure together.
After lunch and a rest it was time to hop on a bus and head into the National Park to find some lava tubes. You can only go on a guided tour for a couple of reasons – to protect the lava tubes from over enthusiastic souvenir-ers, and the fact that they can be 20 m high voids just under the surface and you don’t want to go falling into one…
We saw the prevalence of volcanic basalt rock intensify and our guide Kane (who was a very well educated and passionate geologist-volcanologist-historian-guide) told us the story of this landscape, volcanic eruptions and the evolution of the ground beneath our feet over time.
Bleak dry grassland, with the occasional ironwood eucalypt thrown in. A deceptive veneer. An oasis of darker green formed an island in the savannah, an island we descended into. This remnant rainforest sits on the collapsed roof (now floor) of a lava tube. Dense greenery and a winding, descending boardwalk leads to the most remarkable formation. A cylindrical cave, 20 metres high and wide yawns before us, barely a few metres below the surface of the earth we just walked over. We see the roots of trees hanging from the roof. This yawning maw feels like something out of a science fiction movie. The most un-claustrophobic of enclosed spaces.
We learned about the formation of these massive tunnels, the periodic volcanic eruptions, every few hundred thousand years that cover and remake the landscape. The carving of the tunnels for over a hundred kilometres beneath and insulating surface crust of hardened lava/basalt. We explore a couple more tubes and learn that indigenous knowledge of this area has been lost through intergenerational assimilation of aboriginal people by white missionaries. We enjoy the colours and textures of rock, rainforest and sky.
This is a very special place, and we thank Uncle Peter and Aunty Theresa for sending us here as a wedding gift.
We couldn’t stay underground forever, so eventually we returned to camp for a well earned rest. We made some Wallaby friends too.
The next day (Friday) we rose early and drove a short way over to Kalkani Crater, also inside the National Park. Here we hiked up the side of a dead volcano and got to see the gentle silhouette of the actual Undara Volcano (which erupted only 10 000 years ago) on the horizon. Our now practiced eyes could pick out the dark swathes of greenery that signalled the paths of lava tubes. We were early enough to walk alone, just the two of us enjoying the quiet natural beauty.
From Undara we continued the slow climb towards the northern part of the Great Dividing Range. We passed through Mount Garnet and Innot Hot Springs to get to Ravenshoe, Queensland’s highest town. As we will be back this way in a week or so with Ruth’s folks, who are flying into Cairns for her birthday, we deliberately didn’t do too much exploring in this area.
We crested windy hill and enjoyed stunning vistas of mountains, the Atherton Tableland and graceful wind turbines. As we drove north from Ravenshoe through Atherton (also returning next week) and Mareeba we enjoyed the lush green hills and remnant rainforest. The road twisted and switch-backed and guard-railed its way between this trio of Tableland towns. It felt very reminiscent of parts of Tasmania.