Far north Queensland

2002

FNQ - far north Queensland - has some wonderful places... here are my trip notes:

I drove north after the Cairns conference on aquatic protected areas finished. There's still a ferry across the Daintree River, and the narrow road north winds through dense tropical rainforest, crossing small but beautiful forest streams. There's a variety of accommodation, ranging from tent sites to expensive resorts. Free camping on the beach, which Rosemary and I had 30 years ago, has gone. Although there's a lot of tourist pressure (which included me, of course) most of the pressure is focused on a small number of areas, and its still easy to find a beach to yourself, if you're prepared to walk a little, and the sea breeze still ruffles the coconut palms growing along the edge of the sandy beaches. And below the high tide level, there are no human footprints on the sand. Which is wonderful.

The bitumen road gives way to gravel as you travel north. The first evening I had driven as far north as you can get a 2WD vehicle, and I was stopped by a shallow river not all that far north of Cape Tribulation. At that stage I didn't understand that free camping was completely prohibited, and I found that by crossing some shallow water I could get the Holden into a flat spot on the river's bank, a hundred metres west of the road. There was no-one else around, although I did have the company of a dark brown feral pig. These animals are usually very shy, and I was surprised to see it so close. Apparently the National Park rangers remove about 250 each month from the World Heritage Wet Tropics reserve, which covers much of this area.

Surprisingly, there were no mosquitos or sandflies around, although the area has a bad reputation for these insects. I removed the Holden's sunroof panel, and went to sleep with the moon shining in, listening to the sounds of the jungle and the stream.

The next morning I walked to the nearest beach, which turned out to be only 5 minutes away. There were streams entering the ocean at either end of the beach, so I swam in the middle section, just in case there were hungry estuarine crocodiles around! The rainforest comes right down to the edge of the sand, and huge dark green trees hang over the sand - which provides great shade. There were orange-footed scrub fowl scratching around the debris on the floor of the forest. They're about the size of a chook, and several birds work together to build a communal nest-mound. It's remarkable how open and park-like some of the dense forest is. I guess it's because the canopy is so thick that not much grows in the darkness of the forest floor.

After my beach expedition I walked upstream to a deep hole - deep enough to swim. The water seems as clear as glass, and there were lots of stripped fish in the deeper water, 15 – 20 cm long. They got quite excited when I threw a few small leaves onto the stream surface - which I guess indicates that they feed on insects dropping into the water from the overhanging vegetation. They quickly gave up on the leaves, and nothing else I could do seemed to interest them - I suppose they recognised a tourist, even though I seemed to have the whole river to myself. When I emerged from another swim, I found a slim green-yellow snake curled up amongst the rocks at the edge of the stream. It was almost completely submerged, and I suppose it was waiting for something edible to wander by. Either that or just cooling off? The air temperature during the day reaches around 27 degrees C in August, but it feels much hotter than that if you’re in the sun.

I spent more nights camping at Noah's Beach and Garner's Beach (just north of Bingil Bay near Mission Beach). Walking along a tourist 'nature walk' through National Park palm forest, I was startled to find a Cassowary and his chick walking straight towards me! I stepped to the side, as the path was only one-person wide, and so did the Cassowary, who was not apparently unduly concerned! I didn't take a photo, as I had been told the birds don't like flashlights, and it was too dark to take a shot without one. They are big birds - males often over 65kg bodyweight, which makes them Australia’s heaviest bird.

The beaches here face towards the east. I've been able to watch the moon rise over the open ocean in the evening, and the sun rise in the morning. When I camped near the beach I would get up before dawn, walk down to the sand, and wait in the stillness of the early morning as the eastern sky lit up with brilliant colours... reflecting in a calm and warm ocean - often glassy smooth at that time of day. Then I'ld swim, and return to my camp for breakfast.

Taking a torch along the beaches at night is a great experience, as there are a huge variety of crabs living here. The ghost crabs come out from their holes in the sand at night, and walk along the very edge of the breaking waves - looking for food, I guess. I should add that the waves have been around 10 cm high most of the time! Not exactly rough water.

The crabs keep absolutely still in the torchlight, until they decide that they have definitely been seen, then they move amazingly fast. I suppose they are safe enough in their burrows, but once outside they run risks from fish on the one side and forest rats on the other. Coconuts which fall from the palms seem to be opened with ease by white-tailed rats (so I'm told). You can see their paw prints in the sand around the coconuts. I found a half-eaten coconut one morning which was surrounded by crab foot-prints as well as rat-prints, suggesting that the crabs finish what the rats leave. I tried to open a fallen coconut myself, but had a LOT of trouble! I would love to see more of the night-life of these beaches, but one would really have to use remote techniques like infra-red video surveillance.

I spent a couple of days on Hinchinbrook Island, renting a cabin. This island is fantastic... it contains Queensland’s fifth highest mountain – Mt Bowen. I would love to go back. One of the eastern beaches has fossilised crabs scattered along the sand; another has heaps of sand-dollars. Walking along the shallow water during the day, you see dozens of swimmer-crabs, which bury themselves as you approach. The waters of the island have been declared a dugong sanctuary, and you can see dugongs easily enough from a distance. There are plenty of turtles too, and I was lucky enough to get very close to turtles above and below the water. Under the jetty I found a school of small fish, apparently unconcerned by the presence of a metre-long shark, which seemed to be keeping the school company. Although the shark was so small, I was un-nerved by the lack of visibility, wondering if maybe the shark's big brother was nearby. I left the water without trying to find out!

Walking alone along a deserted beach, I found the tracks of a large goanna in the beach sand, and, at the end of the tracks, the goanna! As goannas often do, it took refuge in a tree.

A torch at night, held close to the head, reveals tiny lights on the forest floor - spiders eyes. Wolf spiders, large and small and very small, all beautifully camouflaged against the brown leaf litter, but revealed by an amazingly bright eye-shine. Jewels in the night - reminding me of some wonderful similar experiences in arid Western Australia with Rosemary many years ago.

I spent a few days at Copperfield Dam near Kidston. It is amazing granite boulder country. Unfortunately the weather was overcast - completely the wrong light for photography, which was a central purpose of my visit. Again, though, I was fascinated by some of the area's smaller inhabitants. A dragonfly would return again and again to exactly the same spot on a dead branch. This animal was later replaced, in exactly the same spot, by a smaller dragon fly, entirely crimson in colour. I was mortified by battery failure on my camera!

The dam wall is quite large, and partially concrete. Hundreds of bats have taken up residence in the inspection tunnel of the dam wall, and I was camped only 100 m away from the tunnel exit. After sunset the evening sky was still bright enough to see dozens of these little creatures, darting silently across the half-lit sky.

Three guys, Department of Water Resource employees, had brought a boat and traps to catch red-claw crayfish. They loaned me the boat, so I rowed some kilometres up the dam. I hardly saw the guys again, and saw no-one else. The owners of Rycon station, Paddy and Beth Ryan, had given me permission to enter their land, which I suppose is leasehold. The Kidston goldmine, which used to use the dam's water, closed down a couple of years ago.

I was alone in this rugged and beautiful landscape. An arid beauty completely different from the lush beauty of the coastal rainforests. Paperbarks growing on the dry sandy beds of ephemeral rivers... never-ending dirt roads running towards the horizon... The occasional bustard, stately and somehow quizzical, head raised tall in an aristocratic fashion... wonderful to see these large birds are still here.

I stopped for a brief look at the Undara volcanic lava tubes. The tourist guided tours are expensive, and I wasn't in the mood to be part of a flock. The tubes run for huge distances (100+ km), so I worked out where they crossed the main roads, and did a bit of exploring for myself. I found the tubes, but couldn't find any access points, which are provided by places where the roof of the tube collapses.

On the way south I called in at Bluewater Creek, where Rosemary and I had spent many enjoyable days in 1973. We camped beside the creek’s small estuary, where we had access to the ocean across the estuary entrance. We had the place completely to ourselves, except for one visit by the police asking about possible smuggling activities. We took our 14’ aluminium boat to Rattlesnake Island, maybe 10km offshore – one of the scariest trips of my life, as we had underestimated the strength of the off-shore wind. We got back OK after the seabreeze developed around midday. I also remember rowing on the estuary at night, leaving phosphorescent pools under each oar-stroke.

I was particularly fascinated by the mudskippers, of which there seemed to be thousands inhabiting the mangrove mudflats. Truly amazing fishes, they spend almost all their time out of water. A fish that lives on land. They never seem to get too far away from the water’s edge, dunking themselves regularly. Their fins are adapted to allow them to ‘walk’ on land, and they can also ‘skip’ across the surface of the water at high speed for very short distances. Their social life seems to be organised according to pecking order, which allows certain individuals to claim home ranges. Challenges between individuals have two stages: the first is signalled by a raising of dorsal fins, which usually lie flat. The second stage sees the two contestants side by side, tail to head. A slapping match then results in one (predictably, the smaller one) backing down. They eat the small crabs which are plentiful amongst the mangroves, catching them with short high speed lunges. The mudskippers are small, usually 20 – 70 mm in length. The crabs are smaller, with carapace measurements of 1 – 10 mm. The crabs eaten are 1 – 3 mm in size. I guess the crabs feed on tiny plants or animals inhabiting the mud. Over the three weeks we were observing our fish, they became used to our presence, and would accept food offered in the tip of a teaspoon. I would love to know more about them, but have never found information on their breeding habits, or predator relationships. When pursued, they avoid seeking refuge underneath the surface of the water – somewhat paradoxically. Is this because they fear predators below the surface, or is it because they can’t extract oxygen efficiently from the water?

Bluewater Creek has changed dramatically in the three decades since my last visit. The adjacent beachfront land has been subdivided into urban blocks, and houses built. It is now the most northern ‘suburb’ of Townsville. The creek itself is carrying far more sand than it did, and a huge sand accretion has built up outside the entrance. The mangroves are still there, for the most part healthy. The camping areas beside the creek are no longer accessible by vehicle, and have disappeared under regrowth of mangrove and adjacent scrub. The mud crabs are still there in good numbers, but the population of mudskippers seems to have been reduced dramatically. The longest I saw was 30 mm – the large animals seem to have disappeared, and numbers of even the small ones seem much lower than they were in 1973. I wonder what has happened over 30 years to cause these changes? Are the fish now preyed upon, perhaps by humans or egrets? Both were in evidence at the creek.

On Sunday 8th September I dived on the wreck of the SS Yongala, with Adrenalin Dive, Townsville. It was the most spectacular dive I have done since I got my dive certificate at age 18. The wreck lies in 30m water, well out from the coast. The return boat trip is 7 hours, so I felt lucky that the sea was glassy – no wind at all. The crew said they see less than 10 days each year like this. The steel cargo-liner went down during a cyclone in 1911, with the loss of all 120 on board. It lies on its side, and considering the way steel rusts, it’s in great condition for its age. Visibility was about 15m, maybe a bit more at the bottom. It’s the only ‘reef’ structure in the area, sitting on a seabed which is essentially sand for miles around, so it acts like a magnet for marine life. And it was all so incredibly tame! Heaps of groper of different colours, including one really big one. Turtles, which just went on feeding on the coral even though I was only a metre away! Small sand sharks resting on the bottom, lined up like cars in a parking lot! Big stingrays on the sand, and manta rays in mid-water. Seasnakes, octopus, huge Maori wrasse, and large schools of many species of multi-coloured reef fish, which seemed to ebb and flow around and in and out of the wreck. The wreck is a national historic site, and still contains artefacts and human bones. Entering the wreck is forbidden by State legislation, under the jurisdiction of the Queensland Museum. And of course colourful corals and filter-feeding invertebrates, in every shade. Mostly soft corals, but some hard. And pelagic fish too. Large schools of giant trevally, and one lone fish, looked about 2 metres in length, maybe a tuna of some kind. It was as if someone had taken the beauty of the great barrier reef, and condensed it all onto this one dive site! Everywhere you looked, there was something going on… big fish everywhere, in fact there was far too much to take in, even in two dives. If I ever go again, I’ll take a camera! I was greatly impressed… the wreck and its inhabitants had a great sense of tranquillity… no-one seemed scared of anyone else, even though there must have been a lot of predator/prey stuff going on from time to time. They just mingled together, in this wonderful world of colour and movement and fantastic shapes and forms…

A few days later I stopped at Carnarvon Gorge National Park, and did a pretty standard walk up the gorge from the park information centre. It’s an easy flat walk, although with all my side excursions I probably walked around 26 km in 10 hours. I visited Moss Garden, the Amphitheatre, Wards Canyon, the Art Gallery, Cathedral Cave and Boowinda Canyon. It’s sandstone escarpment country, like Sydney’s Blue Mountains. The gorge is pretty big, but not as big as the Blue Mountains – which are gigantic really. This country is scenically wonderful, with such a variety of nooks and crannies as side rivers and creeks enter the main gorge. There are amazing palms, cycads and ferns, including the King Fern, which has, reputedly, the largest fronds of any fern in the world; sometimes 5m in length. The water of the creek flows clear, in spite of a lot of damage to the vegetation in the floor of the gorge from wild pigs. The Amphitheatre is spectacular… a huge hole in the ground, vertical walls maybe 100 foot high… very quiet and still, of course. I was lucky to have it to myself. There’s a passageway… you enter this amazing cavity from the bottom, where a small creek flows. At four o’clock, I lay on my back looking up, where the moon and a star hung in the light blue sky.

Anyhow... these are the highlights of my last two months. I feel so lucky to be here, able to see these places... partly by circumstance, partly by the generosity of others...

It's a wonderful planet...

Jon.

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