March 2, 2013

It finally stopped raining! The drive north was cloudy but with patches of blue sky and an occasional hint of sunshine. The trees were becoming shorter and fewer and we were seeing more emus grazing along the roadside. No live kangaroos but three large and recent road-kills warned us to keep a sharp look-out for potential collision hazards. We saw a large spotted animal as road-kill and stopped to investigate. It was not a Tasmanian spotted leopard as we had surmised but a large and very dead, domestic cat. It brought home to us how few (if any) domestic animals we had seen as road-kill in Australia.

Cattle on roadNight toiletSheep on road

Several times we had to brake to a complete stop to allow cattle or sheep to cross the highway. The cattle were not easily spooked by vehicles and we had to slowly edge our way forwards in order to encourage them to move from the roadway.

Our destination today was Lightning Ridge, an “outback” town of around 2,500 that is located 50 kms. south of the Queensland border. The town is famous as the world’s primary source of “Black Opals”. The gem was first discovered here around 1900 and began to be appreciated as desirable and having commercial value around 1907. We arrived in Lightning Ridge in early afternoon and stopped at Annette’s favorite Opal store. Their display of “solid” opal was missing – the store owner was attending the annual gem and fossil show in Arizona.

We decided to spend the night at a caravan park near the artesian bore that provides water to the region. The water comes from Australia’s Great Artesian Basin from a depth of over a kilometer below the surface and flows freely at a temperature of 40C (104F). The residents of Lightning Ridge have built a soaking / swimming pool over the bore, with toilets, changing rooms and showers, open free to the public 24 / 7. This facility was a couple of hundred yards from our caravan park. The Great Artesian Basin is a remarkable geologic phenomenon as it underlies 23% of the continent. It is recharged from the eastern (and to a smaller extent the western) edge of the basin, where it rains and delivers artesian water to parts of Australia where it doesn’t often rain. Remarkable. The water extraction rate is higher than the recharge rate but the Australians are beginning to get a handle on this to shut down abandoned bores and conserve this incredible natural resource.

Fossicking for opalsBore poolArtesian basin

After seeing all of the cattle on the highway, we both needed steak for supper and hauled the BBQ out from our stern locker. The folks in the adjacent camper were Canadians, George and Ruth from British Columbia, who like us are on “walkabout” for several months. They entertained us with tales of their having rented a “back packer” van with Spartan interior. On day two they noticed it was adorned with the phrase, “Fucking Amazing!” in eighteen inch high blazing yellow letters, as part of the vendor’s advertising. Not so cool when you are retirement age and the local police keep glowering at you, while the drug dogs bare their teeth threateningly.

March 3, 2013

We signed up for a bus tour of Lightning Ridge and early this morning were picked up by our tour driver with his Toyota Coaster bus. It was a little weird being driven around in a vehicle that was an almost carbon copy of the one we had just got out of, (except for the fact that this vehicle had more seats). We drove through an area of mining claims but there was scant evidence of current activity.

Mine head Opal mineshaft Opal mining Mining dunny Claim markers Opal mining

The area still had mine tailings decorating the 50 meter by 50 meter opal leases, together with all sorts of abandoned and gently rusting machinery. Lean to’s, old caravans, wooden shacks, old buses and the like had provided accommodation for the miners and as they had worn out their various vehicles, many were abandoned in historical sequence beside their dwelling. An amazing collection of rusting cars and trucks from the 1940’s onwards. There were several elaborate and strange buildings but their eccentric owners and creators were long gone, either dead or in some Senior Care Facility in Sydney. Our tour was basically of worked out mines and although the area was still inhabited, the real action had moved on elsewhere. Nevertheless, it was a fun trip and our guide seasoned his tour patter with a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes. Overall, there were more tourists than I remembered from our visit in 2006 but less of a frontier atmosphere to the town. Cloying civilization has enveloped Lightning Ridge.

In 2006, we had met Kevin the local DJ of the Lightning Ridge radio station, known throughout town as “Grassy”. This afternoon we"Grassy""Grassy" moved into a caravan park near the Bowling Club (lawn bowling) and in the adjacent cabin we again met “Grassy”. He has been retired from the radio station for the past ten months and is now indulging his new hobby of amateur radio. When I listened to his radio, I was amazed at how quiet the background interference was compared to the near identical radio we had aboard S/V DoodleBug. The absence of all of the electronic machinery such as autopilot, radar, depth sounders, GPS and battery chargers made a huge difference. And the room didn’t rock.

March 4, 2013

Today was self-guided tour day and we visited the “walk-in mine”, touted as Lightning Ridge’s first tourist attraction. We had visited this mine in 2006 and it was still the best example for seeing and understanding the rock layers, opal bearing clay and mining methods. When we exited the mine, I stopped to use the “dunny” (toilet) and when I flushed, a large and surprised looking frog, maybe 8 inches length, plopped into the bowl from below the rim. I called Annette to observe my exciting wildlife discovery and she immediately reached into the bowl to capture the frog for closer examination. This event alone was worth the admission price. The owner of the facility was less impressed and after Annette released her catch into the weeds, I made her wash her hands.

Opal MinerOpal MinerToilet FrogFrog rescueRoos in the shade

We watched a trio of kangaroos lounging in the shade under a parking lot tree before heading over to “Down to Earth Opals”. Fortunately, owner Vicky had not sold everything she owned in the Arizona gem show and Annette found earrings to go with the necklace she had purchased in 2006.

This afternoon we drove south to the town of Coonamble, located on the central western plains of NSW. The internet notes that Coonamble is a regional hub for sheep and wheat but we already knew that from all the sheep grazing along the verges of the highway and occasionally forcing us to a halt as they ambled across the blacktop.

March 5, 2013

Highway 55 south from Coonamble is a lightly travelled road by US standards but is a main through route for the huge “truck-trains” that move much of the goods across Australia. It is two-lanes but occasionally has a third “passing lane”, to enable the more cautious drivers to overtake. We prefer less traffic than this and left the main drag to head southwest towards Warren, Nevertire, and Tottenham. Our intermediate goal was “Big Rabbit Trap”, on the way to Tullamore. We had no idea what this was but how can you ignore something on the map with a name like that? The road to Tottenham was single lane blacktop, with no striping and we had the highway to ourselves. Just occasionally, we would have to squeeze by some huge piece of farm machinery that was being transported from field to field but otherwise it was pretty drive through farmland and sheep pastures - just lizards to watch for as we drove. We arrived at the Rabbit Trap hotel and stopped for beer and lunch. The pub was decorated throughout with rabbit-traps but the “Big Rabbit Trap” was “being painted”, so we neither saw it nor learned its history. The publican did however give us routing advice, based on local road conditions and we drove to Condobolin via Fifield on unsealed roads that were in good condition.

On the road southmachinery in transitThe rabbit trap hotelrabbit trap clockparrotsparrots

The town of Condobolin has a population of around 2,800 and straddles the Lachlan River. We camped next to the river and shared our campsite with an estimated 3,000 sulfur crested cockatoos. At times their noise was deafening and as dusk approached they would depart in flocks of several hundred birds at a time, all departing in the same direction for their night roost. The screeching would build in intensity, a few birds would begin flying and then another couple of hundred birds would follow the leaders, all screaming as they left. Finally the last flock left and the few remaining Galahs were almost laughable with their tiny chirps. Fun to watch and experience for a single night but bird hell if you have to live with the daily noise. Out of curiosity, I “Googled” sulfur crested cockatoos in Texas and found four babies for sale in Kerrville, Texas at $1,100 each. That would make this mob worth about $3.3 million, less freight......

March 6, 2013

We set out today for Wagga Wagga, the largest inland town in New South Wales with a population of around 47,000 people. Another pleasant drive on empty back-roads, with just a few emus to be seen in the miles of flat hayfields. The terrain is becomingplumbing problem rolling as we near the southern mountains of Australia and we arrived at our campsite on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in early afternoon. We planned on an easy relaxed afternoon and had been at the campsite for about 40 minutes, when a loud thump got our attention. Then Annette noticed that water was flowing rapidly from under the “kitchen” cabinets and across the floor. The problem was isolated to a water connection to the kitchen faucet that had “popped” out of the fitting.

I spent the next hour or so trying to remove the plastic retaining pin from the fitting, while Annette mopped up the mess and attempted to dry everything out. I had no luck with this and since I lacked both a wrench to remove the faucet and a replacement retaining pin when I finally did, we decided to make a visit to the workshop of the company that built the RV conversion in Brisbane next week. Meanwhile we will use the bucket of water approach for washing dishes and flushing the toilet. Every campsite that we have stayed at in Australia has offered clean and well-maintained hot showers and toilets. Most parks have also provided cooking facilities in the form of gas-fired barbeques. Of course it is a luxury we enjoy to use the on-board potty in the middle of the night, rather than brave the “drop-bears” (reportedly a carnivorous variant of the Koala) during a darkness perambulation to the facilities.

On the subject of BBQ’s, Annette has passed so many sheep over the past few days she defrosted lamb chops for supper. Our rest day had turned out to be not so restful after all but after a wonderful and reviving supper, we wandered over to the banks of the Murrumbidgee, to discover several hundred yards of sand beach. We walked the beach, kicking over the fresh water clam shells and as dusk was falling, a Kookaburra gave a long laughing cry over the waters, reminding us that it really was a good day.

March 7, 2013

We spent the morning shopping for groceries and a few hardware items and then continued south to Tallangatta, a pretty little town of 950 on the Mitta arm of Lake Hume. I had purchased a water pressure limiter from the hardware store but chickened out on using this as we had just managed to get the RV dried out from the previous flood. I decided instead to use the internal tank water and the pump for a supply. After using water, we turned the pump off, rationalizing that if the supply line popped out of the fitting again, we would likely spill no more than a cup of water before the system lost pressure. Thirty minutes later that scenario executed itself exactly and we mopped up the water again. Back to the bucket.

March 8, 2013

A very pretty drive on a mountain road to the campground at Mitta Mitta. The campsite was perhaps three quarters filled and the “Muster” we have come to witness, does not even begin until Sunday morning. There is a confluence of the Mitta Mitta River and Snowy Creek at the campground and we walked along the riverbank observing the ducks and parrots. We saw several pairs of Gang-gang cockatoos (males are black with a red head and cockade) as well as Australian King parrots. Spectacular birds! We also felt the water temperature and were amazed at how cold the water from the Mitta Mitta River is. No swimming for us!

Miner's shackMiner's shackrock crushermining machinerywalking to pub

Late that evening we we took a walk to the local pub, a distance of perhaps a kilometer. Without the glare of city lights, the southern sky was breathtakingly clear. Betelgeuse glowed red, high in the sky off Orion’s Belt. We simultaneously tried to navigate the lanes while watching for shooting stars and satellites. The raucous laughter of Kookaburras rang out in the darkness as if to punctuate our efforts.

March 9, 2013

Mitta Mitta was another mining town which sprang to importance after gold was discovered here around 1850. The red escarpment left behind by the open pit Pioneer mine is easily seen from around the village. This mine used hydraulic sluicing to obtain the gold and the mine produced 441 Kgs. before it was abandoned in 1904. A dredging operation in 1906 at the location of the present caravan park produced an additional 167 Kgs. for a total of 608 Kgs of alluvial gold. This morning we hiked the local nature trails along the river banks and hillsides and as we walked, I mused that with gold 19.2 times more dense than water, a cubic foot of gold weighs 545 Kgs. For all of the effort of setting up the kilometers of water supply pipes plus aqueducts and for all of the machinery used and the huge amounts of earth shifted, all they obtained was about a cubic foot of gold? In addition, this wasn’t any $1,600 per ounce gold; the 1900 price was around $20 per ounce.

As we walked, I considered the devastation shown in the old photographs of mine operations, coupled with the absence of visible evidence in the dense brush around me of past mining operations. The trail was however littered with white cockatoo feathers, thereby indicating where the birds roosted at night. We spotted the red plumage of a Crimson Rosella, as it clambered through the tree tops. Annette found the distinctive tail feathers of the “Superb Lyrebird” on the trail but the bird itself was in hiding. The trail showed little use, as there were downed trees across it and a near absence of other boot-prints. We were therefore more than a little surprised to find a grotto on the side of the trail with ceramic gnomes, frogs and toadstools. A few paces further and a wombat and pup peered at us from under a fallen log. They too were frozen in fired clay. The turning point in the trail was marked with a picnic table and just about every twig and branch bore a gnome, Tinkerbelle, toad and the like. Someone had obviously gone to a lot of effort to hand carry the components of the table, benches, concrete making materials and decorations.

bower bird nestgnomes on trailceramic wombat

We continued on the trail and about a half mile further on, spotted a possible nest of a ground dwelling bird plus scattered feathers. Annette thought that this was probably an old kill but was puzzled by the blue plastic bottle cap and blue “Easter basket” type filling scattered nearby. She had been collecting feathers and so picked up the blue feathers from the “kill”. Later that evening, she had a terrible recollection that she had seen something like the ground nest before. She scoured the web-sites, U-tube videos and bird books, until she found what she was looking for. The nest she spotted was the nest of a “Satin Bower bird”. This bird is glossy blue black and builds a ground nest or “bower” that he decorates with mainly blue objects including man-made items. So here is this dude, working his feathered derriere off to attract some female, gathering all the bright blue stuff he can find – which is tough in a forest – and Annette rips off all his decorations! And she’s a foreigner! She was crushed when she realized her crime and did not sleep well.

March 10, 2013

Today was the Might Mitta Muster plus Annette’s birthday. The action was on the golf course adjoining the campsite and we wandered over to pay our admission and see the sights.

The first demonstration we saw was an event sponsored by the Australian Skeptic society. It was a test / demonstration of water divining. On the surface of a tennis court were laid 24 identical plastic liter milk bottles. Half were filled with river water and half filled with sand. Two bottles were uncovered, two were wrapped in cotton sacking but identified as to their contents and the balance were wrapped in the same type of cotton sacking but not identified. The local water diviners were offered a prize of $110,000 if they could correctly identify the contents of the bottles. The winner would also receive a plane ticket to the USA to enter the American version of the challenge. There were perhaps twenty diviners participating in the challenge throughout the day but as I spoke to the first challenger, I realized that the others had no chance whatsoever. This man was a pro and dismissive of the amateurs he had been forced to associate with. He carried both a metal rod and a green willow fork and as he strutted, he would sometimes just pass the metal rod over the cloth bundle and with a confident snap, instantly identify it as “water” or “sand”. But sometimes he would pause, hold the metal rod in his mouth and pass the willow fork over the item. The end of the willow fork might pull down hard but his hands never moved. Sometimes the willow wand ignored the mystery bottle and he would snap “sand”. Walking alongside him at a deferential half-pace behind, was the referee, who noted the calls on a clipboard. One diviner used a cricket ball on a string suspended from a ten-inch wooden dowel, others had the traditional L-shaped metal rod but might have wrapped the rod in fine copper wire to improve the reception and another used a carpenter’s cross-cut saw. The results of the first challenge were issued an hour after its completion and Annette returned to see how the pro had done. He had correctly identified ten out of the twenty bottles. Exactly what you would expect from random guesses. Annette spoke with him and he was outraged at the test. The challenge was “fixed” he said because the sand had “mineral” in it!

divining competition divining competition unloading the logs axe men axe men done!

Annette and I parked ourselves in collapsible chairs under a huge shade tree. Directly in front of us was the wood chopping competition being set up. A truck arrived bearing near identical logs, that looked to me to be about 30 inches tall and a foot in diameter. They were offloaded and carefully stacked for use. Next, sections of log were mounted onto steel stands, with the base of the log clamped and the stand itself weighted down with five or six large sandbags. From the care that the logs were being mounted, leveled, clamped and marked, I guessed correctly that the men performing this task were the competitors themselves. We watched as they marked the logs; some taped the upper rim, some hammered small nails in partway, knocked them sideways and then hammered the balance of nails flat with the wood. Why, we don’t know but each log was carefully scrutinized by a judge who added his own incomprehensible hieroglyphics. Finally the competition began. Only one competitor began chopping wood and the judge was counting out loud, while the rest waited. As he continued to count, more competitors began chopping and I realized that they used some sort of handicap system. These guys were big and I mean really big! Not particularly trim and for some, the beer-gut was probably doing most of the work. The last man to start chopping was wearing a tee-shirt that said, “Australia” on it. Although he had given the others a twenty second start, a few strokes brought him level. He seemed to be chopping twice as fast as the others and his axe carved massive chunks. Some competitors just stopped, gasping for air. The heat was intense and we were sitting in the shade! The newbies continued to chop away, long after the “Australia” tee-shirt man had severed his stump and when they finally broke through, the crowd applauded. An exciting competition, carried out without blood or scattered limb fragments.

As we sat watching the lumber chopping spectacle, the show jumping continued in elegant style behind and a hay bale race was underway on our left. Meanwhile, we were besieged and assaulted with the aroma of frying onions. Finally we broke and Annette went to the stall behind us to buy two hamburger, fried onion and cole-slaw sandwiches (served on white sandwich bread) while my task was to score us a couple of beers. What a delicious and well balanced breakfast!

breakfast cooking watching the show flying motorcycle wheelbarrow race antique pumps Our bus

The games and exhibitions had an air of informality that was both fun and refreshing. The children had egg and spoon races and egg throwing competitions. There was also a competition for teams of teen-age girls that required a pair to run, while carrying a long fence post timber between them. At a certain point, they dropped the timber and picked up a cube of salt lick that they alternately carried. Before returning to the start, they had to guzzle a can of soft drink and then push a wheelbarrow containing their partner. Next a pair of expert motorcycle riders gave an exhibition of stunts that included both riding on just the rear wheel, riding on just the front wheel as well as jumping onto and off a variety of vehicles. The two most amazing stunts were when they rode over an obstacle made from a half dozen or so three foot diameter concrete drain pipes, spaced between four and eight feet apart and then jumped the bikes from ground level to the top of three vertically stacked hay bales. The hay bales were 4’ by 4’ by 8’ making the vertical jump 12 feet, an astonishing feat. Of course, the relevance of motorcycles at a “muster” is that in modern animal husbandry, motorcycles have replaced the horse for rounding up sheep and cattle. While all this was going on, a pair of tractors were moving hay bales, picking up chopped logs and generally zipping around. Watching them work was almost as much fun as watching the events. I was waiting to see the Australian display team demonstrate “tent pegging” and we got to see this in early afternoon. This is a military type exercise where four horseback riders in tight formation, would “spear” simulated tent pegs with long lances, while at full gallop. They also speared the pegs using a sword as well as skewering a lemon suspended on a string. These maneuvers have probably never been used in any form of combat but were nevertheless a wonderful display of skill, timing and control by both man and beast.

We had so much fun at the Mitta Muster but by late afternoon we needed to leave in order to take care of an important errand. It was becoming cooler as the sun sank lower in the sky and we set out to retrace yesterday’s hike. Annette intended to return the stolen feathers to the bower bird and as an apology, all day long she had been gathering pieces of blue plastic and blue glass. Werestored plunder bower nest hiked back into the hills and at around the mid-way point we actually managed to find the nest. Annette admitted she hadn’t put our chances at better than 30% but we did find it and the bower bird had been trying to make repairs in our absence. He had found some yellow feathers, which our birding guide says is often the fallback when blue is not available. We never saw the bower bird himself in the thick brush but Annette restored the stolen feathers and scattered the other penance offerings nearby, so that he could select from them at his choice. He is probably a very confused little bird but for us, this was both a fun and successful day.

March 11, 2013

We left Mitta Mitta this morning bound for Sydney. I had purchased a generator on eBay and we hoped to pick it up at the vendor’s “warehouse. When I had researched the generator question, the consensus of information seemed to be that we needed a 2.5 Kilowatt unit in order to power the air-conditioner “off the grid”. Fellow RV’ers had maintained that the generator of choice was the 2 Kw Honda - but these cost well over $2,000 and were too small for our purpose. One motor-home vendor indicated that several of his customers had successfully used a low cost Chinese made generator and I had scoured the internet for one of these. Finally, I found such a unit on eBay for $469 - but eBay refused to allow me to buy it because the “vendor” did not export to the USA. OK then, I updated my eBay account to reflect my cousin’s address in Melbourne, plus added my Australian cell-phone. Again I tried to buy the generator. This time I was able to “purchase” the item but was electronically instructed to obtain freight charges from the vendor for shipment to New Mexico. Rats! eBay just wouldn’t let go of my US address. I e-mailed the vendor and indicated that we were in fact in Australia and wanted to pick up the generator from their warehouse near Sydney. The vendor agreed and sent me an invoice that I tried to pay. Now eBay wanted my phone number for delivery. I changed the requested delivery address to the vendor’s address in Sydney and added my phone number for the second time. This step was acceptable to eBay but now I was electronically told to obtain a “revised” invoice from the vendor to reflect the new freight charges - which in every instance was zero. I e-mailed the vendor and suggested that I just pay him cash and he again concurred. Whew!

This was a very pretty drive out of mountains heading northeast and as we left Mitta Mitta, I asked Annette if she perhaps wanted to hike and check on the bower bird one more time. She said that she had thought about it but even she realized that such might be considered “over the top”. We stopped for the night at the town of Yass, a town of around 5600 population on the Yass river.

March 12, 2013

From Yass we were headed for the Sydney suburb of Chipping Norton, where we located an anonymous warehouse, no signage anywhere, just a faded sheet of paper taped to the window instructing a delivery service to call a particular cell number. We asked some nearby loungers if they knew anything about the warehouse occupants and were told that the car parked at the curb belonged to the owner. We rang the doorbell and sure enough met our eBay correspondent and the deal was done.

With the new generator stowed, we wound our way across the Sydney suburbs, hoping to break free of Australia’s most populous city before afternoon rush hour. For the night we stopped in Cessnock, a town that had been an important coal mining town but now relied upon viniculture and tourism. We passed a large coal fired power station on the outskirts of town but saw no sign of the mineral itself. The caravan park we had pulled into was associated with a vineyard and we were able to slip between the vines as a shortcut to our evening meal at the local pub. The restaurant was called the “Swill ‘n Grill” which doesn’t sound quite as attractive in colloquial American English. Annette astonished our neighbors at the caravan park by first trimming my hair and then her own. She was awarded a round of applause when she modeled the finished product.

March 13, 2013

Today finds us heading for Brisbane for a Friday morning appointment at Silversun Motorhomes, the company that had performed the RV conversion on our “Coaster” and who had indicated they would swiftly fix our plumbing problem. Our drive took us through beautiful rolling countryside on a lightly trafficked, two lane highway. It was cloudy but no rain and we stopped for the night at the Glen Rest Tourist Park in the town of Glen Innes. This was a very pleasant park and we could not fail to notice the goat tethered nextManuel to our site. The goat’s name was “Manuel” and besides a fondness for strawberries, he also like motor tires - as his owner Bridgette explained to us while shortening his leash, thereby ensuring our tires remained goat free. Besides Manuel, the park boasted a pair of friendly dogs, Annie Muffet the poodle and Byron the cattle dog, seven pet bunnies and a quantity of pet birds. There was an area set aside for “fossicking for sapphires” but at an elevation of 3,500 feet, it was soon cold after sunset and we were not about to splash around in the cold water. We agreed this would be good place to bring grand-kids.

March 14, 2013

We continued our drive to Brisbane and stopped for the night at suburban caravan park in Springwood. It had been a long drive and we navigated the busy highways and intersections on foot, headed to the local pub for an evening meal. Here we sat and studied the menu, while anxiously waiting ten minutes for the kitchen to open, before discovering that we had in fact changed time zones crossing from New South Wales to Queensland and had an additional hour to wait. Disgusted we bought barramundi and chips from a nearby “take-away chippie” to return and eat on our rig. Quite tasty and considerably cheaper than the pub would have been.

March 15, 2013

At 0630 hours this morning we were at Silversun Motor Homes where we met owner Bojan Matviko. Within minutes we had three guys swarming the rig. The plumbing problem was fixed by exchanging the faucet and after fixing a few minor items, Annette had the guys modify the overhead lockers with the addition of “hold open” struts on the doors. We have remained impressed with the quality of cabinetry on this rig and were further pleased with the follow up service, even though we are not the original purchasers.

Back on the road again, we moved to the north side of Brisbane to visit friends. Ray and Jodie were away for a couple of days but had insisted a month ago that we take their spare house key with us. We expect them home on Saturday night but nevertheless found ourselves camped out in their driveway and hooked up to their power. We spent the balance of the day picking up a few items before we head back to the outback – spare diesel jerry jugs to extend our driving range, plus gas jugs and oil for our newly purchased generator.

March 16 - March 17, 2013

Chores time! While Annette did the laundry, I filled the generator with oil and gas and fired it off. It works! It even has an electric start – amazing! This type of generator is a recent design, a so called “inverter” generator. It uses an internal battery as a sort of electronic flywheel. Instead of a speed regulated gasoline engine driving a high-voltage alternator to produce the necessary voltage and frequency, the engine instead runs at a variable speed and drives a low voltage alternator used to charge the battery, in the same manner as an automobile engine. Attached to the battery is an electronic device called an inverter which take the direct current output of the battery and “inverts” it to a frequency stable alternating current at household voltage (230 Volts at 50 Hertz in Australia).

Our hosts returned late Saturday evening and Sunday morning found us in search of brunch, driving the coast road along Bramble Bay to the town of Redcliffe, just north of Brisbane. This was very interesting, seeing the Brisbaners on a late summer week-end. The day was sunny and the beaches were packed with people enjoying the sun, sea and sand. There was a reasonably stiff breeze, as evidenced by the number of kite-boarders, although just about every flavor of water-sports was represented. We ate at a restaurant called the Hog’s Breath Café but before we arrived to eat, we struggled to find a parking spot and then negotiated a crowded sidewalk between fresh vegetable stalls and an upscale flea market. This is a "happening" kind of place with almost a carnival atmosphere and what amazed us was that today is Sunday and during our 2006 visit, Australia just about rolled up the sidewalks at noon on Saturday and only the pubs and churches were open on Sunday. At least I think the churches were open.

March 18, 2013

This morning Annette was able to get a dental pick from the local dentist's office. She has been scouring pharmacies and hobby stores without success (she needs the pick for her fossil / specimen collecting and cleaning). I picked up a “snatch strap” - a 4WD rescue device for our bus and hope that I never find out how to use it. We had set off from Jodi and Ray’s home in typical city traffic and within a few miles, we were on a two lane highway with few other vehicles. The scenery seems open and clean and then we again realized that when driving in Australia, there are often no utility lines lining the highways and no bill-boards. As soon as I mentioned this to Annette, we spotted a couple but they were on the right of the highway instead of the side we were driving on and too small to read properly.

We stopped for the night at a caravan park called Kilkivan Bush Camping Park, some 6 Kms. off the main highway. We parked by ourselves in a river meadow and ten minutes later were were visited by “wood-fairies” – three little girls, aged perhaps 4 to 8 years old, wearing fairy princess dresses, plus wings. They were delivering our change from the check in and were three of six children, homeschooled by the park’s owner. Annette helped them make wands and crowns for their two brothers who arrived shortly thereafter. We asked the girls what animals we might see and we solemnly received a huge list of what walked on the land and swam in the river. There might be a platypus, we were told but then again, perhaps the floods had washed it downstream.

Kilkivan wood fairiesCamping by riverKilkivan RiverKilkivan River

Two of the gaudy birds we spotted were a blue-faced honey-eater and a rainbow lorikeet. That night we heard a thump on the roof of the bus and our flashlights showed us a pair of bush-tailed possums, staring at us from the branches of the white gum tree we had camped below. This place had no TV and no cellular phone service. The water supply was either rain-water or river-water, take your pick. A truly beautiful place to visit but could be a hard place to make a living.

March 19, 2013

We left Kilkivan and rejoined the empty highways. There were work crews every few miles patching sections of the highway and lots of evidence of flood damage at the river and stream crossings. We paralleled the Burnett river on a road high above it, before crossing on a bridge under repair, and could see how the flood waters had raged through the canyon, leaving behind a layer of twisted, bent and muddy trees.

Burnett RiverBurnett River

Besides the flood debris decorating the upper branches of trees along the highway, we could see that these same trees had been through a recent fire. Their trunks were scorched and blackened but almost all were in full leaf, with just a few charred stumps showing trees that had burned completely.

We drove from Eidsvold to the pub at Cracow on single lane highway, stopping at the pub for a libation and chatting to a couple of local gold miners. They told us that the Cracow mine is a deep, hard rock gold mine and we considered hanging around in the small town but the rain continued and so did we, driving to the town of Theodore along a single lane road that was unsealed in parts. It has been cloudy all day and was also getting colder. We were ready for some sunshine. We had seen several “bottle” trees and stopped to take a picture of a trio that really did look like giant wooden beer bottles - as opposed to fat trees.

Cracow pub Cracow pub Message board Cracow pub Bottle trees

Some 10 kms from Moura, we passed several open pit mines and the biggest tracked vehicle I have ever seen. It was a mechanical drag line shovel and weighing in at over 3,000 tons, it is perhaps two thirds of the size of the largest machine used locally. We stopped for the night at Moura, population around 1800, a small town that services the local coal mining industry. The Moura mines had three mine accidents in 1975, 1986 and 1994. After the 1994 tragedy, the pit was closed and sealed and the extraction process switched from subterranean mining to the open pit mine that has been operating since.

March 20, 2013

We had passed a signpost yesterday that indicated a viewing platform for the Dawson coal mine and this morning, we retraced our passage to visit this. As we drove, I serenaded Annette with the following fragment of a John Denver song, that I thought was appropriate to the occasion:

"And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County

Down by the Green River where Paradise lay

Well, I'm sorry, my son, but you're too late in asking

Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away

Well sometimes we'd travel right down the Green River

To the abandoned old prison down by Adrie Hill

Where the air smelled like snakes and we'd shoot with our pistols

But empty pop bottles was all we would kill"

It was still raining but the viewing platform was sheltered and we looked out over the vast hole in the ground. There were probably snakes, if they hadn't been hiding from the rain but the Australian government would still have had a problem with John's pistol. Whether he could hit pop bottles or not, this place is probably a good days walk from paradise.

Dawson MineDawson Mine

We read that the current mine is 49% Japanese owned (used to be Peabody) and since coal extraction was first begun here, all of the product has been for export to China, Korea, Japan and India. There was no movement within the pit and I wondered how the coal is transported to the coast. We have seen no rail cars and there must be a constant stream to the waiting ships.

More rain is forecast and the vegetation almost glows green along the empty roads. We stopped at the information center in Rolleston and Annette found out what the crop is that has been puzzling her. It is "Leucaena" a tall shrub that was planted in rows with "cow wide" gaps between the rows. We learned that it is grown as cattle feed and the cattle are simply let into the plantings to graze.

Even on these minor side roads, there are lots of road repairs underway. Between the road crews, just empty road with perhaps a single vehicle per 5 miles travelled. Our destination today was the town of Emerald. We stopped at the info center for directions, as I am seeking a 2-way UHF radio and Annette wants a stock whip. We were also directed to the town's Botanical gardens where "20 hour parking" is permitted. We parked beside the Nogoa river, sandwiched between the rail bridge and the road bridge over same. This river has reliably flooded the town every couple of years since it's founding but placidly stayed within its banks for our visit.

March 21, 2013

The botanical gardens in the town of Emerald are laid out along the bank of the Nogoa. We walked the extensive gardens this morning and it was not only a very pretty walk but also educational since most of the trees bore a label stating their specie. Again, the Coolabah tree was not the best tree for shade.

On the way out of town we stopped at store selling communication equipment and I purchased a hand-held two way UHF radio, that might allow us to communicate with commercial trucks and other travellers on the highways. Cell-phone coverage is sparse in the outback, thus most folks rely on radios. As you pass the gates of the larger spreads, there is often a sign stating the name of the property but also including a monitored channel number to use to contact the homestead. We are assured that when travelling in the outback, this ability to communicate in the event of an emergency is absolutely mandatory. Now suitably radio-equipped, our destination today are the towns of Sapphire and Rubyvale, source of 80 % of the world’s sapphires and rubies.

24 foot windmillSifting for gemswashing away dirtBrolga cranesApostle Birds

At Rubyvale, we visited a “walk-in” mine named after its original owner, the “Bobby Dazzler”. (At the turn of the previous century, a new type of acetylene fueled portable bicycle lamp became common and when a group of cyclists were riding together, the cyclists riding illegally without lighting would be surrounded by cyclists using the new bright lights, in order that the police would not notice and ticket the illegals. The new technology acetylene lights were therefore called – “bobby dazzlers”). We took a guided tour of the mine by its current owner and operator. The precious stone bearing layer is a couple of feet thick, at a depth of around fifteen feet from the surface. Much of the original prospecting was done from a hand dug 2 foot by 4 foot vertical shaft and then a side tunnel was scraped, barely more than a man-sized hole, in order to fill a bucket with a sandy / gravel mixture. The bucket was hauled back to the surface and its contents sifted and washed to separate the stones embedded in the sandy matrix. At some point, an enterprising miner realized that he could make some extra bucks by giving tourist tours of the mine and enlarged the working tunnels, adding a sloped entrance shaft with steps. One of these of course was Bobby Dazzler. After our tour, we purchased a bucket of “raw” sand mixture and spent the next hour sifting and washing it for precious stones. As we sifted, four Brolga cranes walked stately by. These birds are about 4 foot tall and would be difficult to fit on the barbeque. We found a half dozen sapphires and a zircon (not the same as cubic zirconium) but none large enough to carve into a likeness of Bill Gates, so we moved on. We hit a couple more stores that were actually open (the locals all insisting that Easter will be busy) but Annette is not fond of conventionally cut stones and saw nothing she liked. One store we visited was owned by an Austrian Australian who had lived in Australia for 40 years. He was fun to listen to as his rapid fire conversation flipped between, Australian politics, American gun control and democracy in India (“Any country with a caste system will never be a democracy!”).

March 22, 2013

Heading for fossil country! We left Rubyvale bound northish, perhaps for the town of Hughenden, an apex of Australia’s “fossil triangle”. We passed the town of Clermont and noted a sign warning drivers that the next fuel was 166 kms away but paid little attention, since we had 2/3rds of a tank remaining. The single pump at Belyando Crossing charged a 25% premium plus a nearby sign echoed the warning that the next fuel was a further 200 kms. Time to pay attention! We are carrying two empty 20 liter jerry jugs for extra diesel and have yet to use them.

The most exciting wildlife sighting of the day was a flock of budgerigars on the outskirts of Clermont, although we also had a group of three large kangaroos race in circles just off our bow. Like rabbits, the kangaroos are unpredictable as to their course and create far more damage in a collision than say, a budgerigar. We have now entered termite country in that their strange mounds decorate the side of the highway and can be seen throughout the bush, between the trees.

We stopped for the night at a parking area at Cape River and joined a group of four other caravans / motor homes plus several large trucks. We joined the group clustered around a picnic table in the shade and learned that our companions were an eclectic group consisting of a nurse / painter, another retired nurse, retired truck driver plus the working truck drivers whose crews included wives, dog and a four year old boy, “Elliot”. Seasoned traveller Annette had giant “pipe cleaner” toys for Elliot and a ball for the dog.

That night it was much warmer than we had expected and not a breath of wind. We would liked to have run our generator / air-conditioner combo but this is not considered noise-friendly when we are all parked in close proximity.

March 23, 2013

When we rolled out of last nights campsite, we were alone, everyone else had already quietly slipped away and so did we, continuing north to the town of Charters Towers. We stopped here to purchase some mosquito netting – not for mosquitos, which have yet to be a problem, but to screen the side door of the bus from flies when we are parked and it stands open. We searched in vain for magnets to attach the temporary fly screen and at the same time Annette continued her quest for a stock whip.

We struck out a couple of recommended stores when we given the card of master whip maker, “Stumpy Malone”. When Annette telephoned, Stumpy’s wife instructed us to come by and see what Stumpy had in the “finished” category. Stumpy truly is a master and the whips he had made were woven from kangaroo hide, weighted with lead in places “to make it hang right”, and silky smooth with an effortless taper from handle to tip. Stumpy selected a couple of whips for Annette to try and showed her how to crack it. Her first effort left a bright red wheal across her shoulders. Now she understands why Indiana Jones always wore a leather jacket, rather than a light summer frock.

Master whip makermaking a whiptesting the whipBack wheal

Even though the whip “bit her”, she purchased same and is determined to tame it. We turned west on the Flinders Highway heading to the town of Hughendon for the night. It was late Saturday afternoon when we reached our goal and everything was closed. This will be our last town before we head north tomorrow “into the bush” over the “Kennedy Development Road”. It is 262 kms. to the next fuel at Lynd Junction, famous for having Queensland’s smallest bar and a permanent population of two.

Hughendon main streetDrive through liquor storeMoon stones

The guidebook noted that our campsite across from the railway terminal boasted the only grass lawn in town. Perfect for whip practice! I insisted Annette wear a heavy rain jacket during her practice session and by the time she was just about cooked wearing it, it had been struck a half dozen times but she was also reliably hitting her empty beer-can target.

March 24, 2013

This morning, we checked the engine oil, tire pressures, filled our fresh water tank and emptied our waste tanks before refueling our main diesel tank plus a spare jerry jug. We now have 11 electronic gadgets on board that require recharging and these too were all topped up. We are set! We first drove north to the Porcupine Gorge National Park, stopping to view a couple of roadside graves. One bore a sign stating that a local post rider is buried here, after he had been ambushed and speared to death by a band of aborigines. Yes, that would ruin your day. An overlook gave us our first sighting of the gorge and it lay before us, a deep scar in the earth gouged out by the tiny stream below our feet, exposing rocky cliffs colored in a spectrum from ochre, through lilac, creamy ash and the black of basalt. A stark contrast to the green of the bush. We drove around the campsite before selecting a shaded site and discovered that we were alone in the park.

Around three o’clock we descended the trail into the gorge itself, a distance of perhaps a mile and a half. The trail wound through an area that had been burned in a recent fire but we could not tell if it was a so called, “controlled burn” or if this had been a wildfire. The vegetation on the far side of the gorge looked untouched, as did trees to the sides of the trail. It was hot and the dominant life-form of the planet was scurrying beneath our boots at every step. Ants! Ants of all shapes and sizes and if you stopped in one place too long, they would begin marching up your legs. It was obvious why Australian drovers never sit directly on the ground but squat on their insecticide soaked boot heels. At the base of the canyon, the river had carved its channel through hardened ash leaving a bed of coarse sand upon smoothed rock. There were deep eddy holes and pockets where fast water and small boulders had ground futuristic shapes in the soft rock. The river was not flowing surface water but formed a series of pools, each fed from the pool above, with water trickling through the sand / gravel bed. The pools contained lots of small trapped fish but as I confidently stated, no crocodiles. Thus we stripped off and cooled down in a deep pool in the shadow of the cliffs. A beautiful canyon.

Porcupine GorgePorcupine GorgePorcupine GorgeCooling offCooling off

In late afternoon, we estimated there was an hour before sunset and a suitable time for the exertion of the climb up and out of the canyon. We emerged on the rim to find the park just as empty as when we left and our motor home still parked safely in the same spot. After dusk we took a stroll around the park and as we returned to our site, we surprised a tiny kangaroo called a Northern Bettong. It had apparently just devoured the brazil nut I had earlier found on the floor of the bus and cast outside.

It cooled off after sunset and as we lay on the bed, I heard furtive movement outside the bus. I couldn’t see anything and so exited the bus to sit on a chair in the darkness for twenty minutes or so, listening to the night. After ten minutes, Annette, wearing nothing but a shorty nightdress, joined me in my vigil. No movement nearby and so Annette got up to go back inside. “Ed, I can’t open the door”, she whispered. Sure enough, when she had exited, she had inadvertently locked and then closed the side door “to keep bugs out”. All doors were firmly locked, it was 14 kms. from the campsite to the road and then another 60 kms from the turnoff back to town. This would be in darkness and without footwear, not an exciting prospect. Then we noticed that the rear side window was unlocked and were able to unlatch the flyscreen from the outside, without damaging it. Next, I boosted Annette up and and through the window and we were saved! She promises to let the gosh darn flies in next time.

March 25, 2013

We drove the 14 kms. back onto the "Kennedy Development Road” this morning and had driven perhaps another fifty yards when a large kangaroo shot across our bows, missing us by perhaps thirty feet. Wow, we were barely awake! The road then straightened out and in the distance, we saw the saddest sight of the trip. A kangaroo lay dead in the middle of the road and sitting next to it “waiting” was a young ‘roo. It was obviously a juvenile waiting for its mother to get up, which wasn’t going to happen. It ran away as we neared and to our inexpert eyes, seemed certainly big enough to be independently viable. It remains a puzzle as to how animals that are this timid, are hit and killed on a road with such infrequent traffic.

Dirt roadparrots on roadDead roo on roadPassing road trainPassing road train

The next two hundred kilometers were on unsealed roads with but three or four sections of a few kilometers each, that had been sealed with tarmacadam. The road varied between two lane gravel to single lane soft sand, heavily corrugated in places, some parts graded and smooth and others with axle breaking potholes for the unwary. When we saw a large “road train” approaching, we pulled completely off the road and came to a halt. The truck portion we could see was leading a huge dust cloud that was drifting diagonally across the road towards us in the stiff cross-wind. It looked monstrous with its huge kangaroo bars protecting the engine, like an old time wood burner with cow-catcher on the front. Then the roar of the engine and the cloud of dust was upon us. We could see nothing but orange sand as we listened to the rumble as each trailer passed us by, completely unseen. We assume that the truck was hauling three trailers, although later we did see a four trailer train.

The drive was amazing, seemingly through uninhabited country, although an occasional side trail with signage would belie this notion. We passed perhaps ten other vehicles over a period of four hours and most of these were travelling locally, that is within their own spread. There were many flocks of Galahs feeding next to the road and they would take off as a pink and grey cloud, wheeling in front of us, sometimes punctuated by a brilliant flash of green as a flock of budgerigars took to flight and once we had the blue and yellow of a flock of Pale-headed Rosellas. Everywhere were cattle. They were usually safely behind wire fences but sometimes roaming the track and we would slow or stop for them to move. I could not help but think of high school geography in England, half a century ago. Here we learned that Australia was this huge sheep station and the primary export was wool and mutton. We have rarely seen sheep on this trip and the exports are obviously beef, coal and uranium. So much for schooling!

dirt roaddirt roadtermite moundOasis roadhouseOasis bartruck encounter

Naturally we stopped for a beer at the Oasis, the smallest bar in Queensland – not much bigger than Superman’s telephone booth. There were no other bar patrons and no room for them even if there were any, so we continued our trip over now surfaced roads, bound for the Undara Volcanic National Park lava tubes.

This National Park is unusual in that it operates as a kind of hybrid with an associated privately owned resort. The park doesn’t allow unguided visits, that is you must be escorted on a tour organized by the resort, thus we signed up for the night tour to see bats and snakes in the lava tubes. The tour began with a drive from the resort to the park and as dusk approached we saw several group of grey kangaroos and “pretty face” or whip-tail wallabies. The road was rutted sand and had been the main road from Cardwell on the coast to the gold fields for over one hundred years. We saw that the bigger trees still bore the axe “blaze marks”, showing the trail along the high ground on the fringe of the “100 mile swamp”. The latter is a depression that fills with cyclone deposited water every decade or so, forming a shallow lake with a depth of perhaps 4-5 meters at center. The lake so formed was “one hundred miles” long and would have presented a formidable obstacle to early travellers.

tree snakestree snakestree snakesstair snakecane toad

It was dark when we arrived at the narrow entrance to the lava tube and bats were already pouring from this vent. We stood directly in front of the exit and the stream of bats flitted silently and swiftly past our faces. These bats, called “micro-bats” are actually four different species but to us they all looked the same, as they almost brushed our skin in their high speed rush to exit and find bugs for supper. As we waited, so too did some half dozen snakes. The snakes utterly ignored us, their supper choice was bat and some five “brown” or “night tiger” tree snakes hung above our head, from the tree branches framing the exit hole, with a sixth spotted python waiting below. The snakes were all poised to strike but how they could catch a bat that was travelling at near supersonic speeds is a mystery to me. A large rat ran past our feet but he looked overfed and way too big for any of the snakes to tackle. A really fun tour at the end of a long day.

March 26, 2013

Somehow, we were awake this morning in time for the morning tour of the lava tubes themselves. Lava tubes are formed when there is an eruption of magma from deep in the earth and the resulting lava is discharged from the surface in a very liquid and free flowingwallabies grazing state. This lava can rapidly spread out over large areas and will seek existing drainage channels in its gravity fed rush downhill. When a preferred channel is found, the freshly erupted lava remains liquid and molten inside a tube of cooler lava and the bulk of the flow will be constrained by this conduit until the eruption ceases - at which time the hot liquid rock may drain completely from sections of this giant hosepipe, leaving behind the constraining lava “tubes” that we are to visit today. The entrance to the tube was in the area of a collapsed roof section and this exhibited itself as rocky pit of broken basalt with an explosion of trees and vegetation. The collapsed portion of the tube feels cool and damp compared to the surrounding surface and provides its own mini-environment for the animals and plants that made it their home. In the pit we saw several bush turkeys but my eyes were drawn to the roof of the tube. It span was about 70 feet wide and looked perhaps six feet thick at the entrance. The rocks were fractured with large cracks running in all directions and below was ample evidence of previous rock falls. If that sucker collapsed while we were underneath, this was really going to make for a bad day. I walked with as little vibration as possible into the cave and saw below me, a vast expanse of floor made by soil carried in from lava tubelava tubethe surface and covered in roots like massive steel cables, reaching from the entrance trees, hundreds of feet in search of precious water. Deeper in the cavern were cane toads, frozen in position and pretending they weren’t there. Annette had seized one in the campgrounds last night and carried it a couple of hundred yards to the bus, while it made gurgling, hiccup noises. She wanted a picture of it and didn’t have her camera – hence the frog march. I reminded her today that these frogs were government frogs, living in the national park and she wasn’t allowed to molest them. The lava tubes were huge, much larger than those we had seen in the Canary Islands and of course contained the bat colonies we had seen last night. There were a few bats flitting about but when our guide turned his light onto what looked like a dinner plate sized growth on the cave roof, the “growth” exploded into swarming bats as they abandoned their attempt at camouflage to flee the intruding illumination. Fun for us but just as well the bats comments were outside our range of hearing.

We hit the road again at noon, bound in the general direction of Cairns and spent the night at the Lake Eacham Resort, some 80 kms from Cairns in what is called the Atherton Tableland. We have now driven the motorhome nearly 10,000 kms. since we purchased it and need to get it serviced before we head west into wilder and more remote country.

March 27, 2013

First job of the day was to make an appointment to get the bus serviced before we head west. The earliest slot we could get is Wednesday week, after the long Easter week-end, thus we phoned our Cooktown friend, “Nicko”, to see what his dance card looked like for the next week. Dismay! Nicko is in hospital in Townsville for extensive chemotherapy. He sounded as cheery as ever and invited us to park our bus on his property in Cooktown and keep an eye on his place when we are there. We met Nicko in 2006 on a tour of the Endeavour River and have corresponded ever since, in fact the opportunity to visit him again was one of the main reasons for our returning to Cooktown. A really interesting man and we wish him the very best with his treatment.

Back at the park it was raining again and as we were preparing to leave, the park owners offered me the use of tools for a repair project I had been procrastinating over. The installed microwave oven had died some weeks ago and rather than hang around in Brisbane in order to get a warranty replacement from Silversun (the RV conversion company), we decided to just buy another and install it ourselves. We have been travelling since Brisbane with a new, “still in carton”, Panasonic microwave oven that takes up an inordinate amount of space on the floor of the RV. Today was the day and with the offer of ready tools, we jumped into removing the refrigerator to gain access to the screws holding the defunct microwave in place. As it turned out, I only needed to drill a single new hole to install the Panasonic model and we now have the double benefit of a working installed microwave, plus the floor space it had formerly occupied.

Chores completed, we treated ourselves to a “rainforest walk” in the nearby national park. Lake Eacham is formed by the crater / rim of an ancient volcanic vent and at an elevation of 2700 feet above sea-level, provides both the necessary rainfall and a rich volcanic soil for a dense native rainforest. The hike was magical through the towering trees, with dense undergrowth and thick vines draped from way above in the canopy. We could hear the calls of exotic birds but the authors of these calls are really hard to spot in thick forest. The lake lay clear and placid with just a few ducks disturbing its surface and the trail followed its circumference. At times we could see that the lake surface was being thrashed with rain but only a few large drops penetrated the leafy umbrella above us.

Upon our return, we stopped by the caravan park office in order to borrow a couple of movies for a rainy afternoon and Annette was give a pear to feed to “Pork Chop”. The latter is a “wild pig”, referred to as a “Cook pig”. Although Cook did present pigs toPork Chop the Maoris in New Zealand, it is probable that the first introduction of pigs to Australia was by the colonization fleet, ten years after Cook. The pigs were a German breed of wild boar and the released feral pigs now outnumber humans in Australia. “Pork Chop” had been found by hunters, the sole surviving piglet of a litter and had been given as a gift to the Caravan owner’s daughter. She (the pig) was now huge and eagerly gobbled the pear Annette dropped into her pen. We were cautioned not to hand proffer the pear as Pork Chop gets too excited around food.

This is a beautiful park with a duck pond, cabins, caravan sites, gas station, store and pig. It sits on 9 acres and as we discovered, it is currently for sale at $1.1 million. If you are interested, I’m sure they will consider offers.

March 28, 2013

A pleasant drive to Cooktown on a smooth road, with virtually no traffic. For the first time, we saw road sign warnings to look out for both Cassowaries and Tree Possums. I could see how we might hit an errant Cassowary but how we get up a tree to run over the possum remains a mystery. This road linking Cooktown to the rest of Australia had just been completed in 2006, before being cut by the cyclone the week before our visit. Today there was no sign of the damage and we rolled into Cooktown in late afternoon to search for Nicko's place. Nicko's home is a "pole house" and is tucked into the slopes of Mount Cook. A little tricky to find but find it we did. We had visited Nicko here during our 2006 visit and the house, landscaping, view and property are just as beautiful and spectacular as we remembered.

Fair warningRoad to CooktownChasing a wallabyPole HouseStaying at Nicko's houseFound Objectscabin snake

March 29, 2013

Today was a chores day with Annette catching up on our accumulated laundry and reorganizing her stores. I had purchased yet another cordless screwdriver / drill and made some minor fixes to the bus. I now own about four cordless screwdrivers scattered over the planet. The general rule is that they are all charged up and ready to go wherever you aren’t. I also washed the bus and was frankly amazed to see it change color before my eyes. It went from a reddish brown color back to the white it was when we bought it. I even washed the dead bugs off the front. Slow day.

March 30, 2013

Today we drove to “downtown” Cooktown, visited the wharf where we had tied up in 2006, had lunch consisting of the three corners of the food pyramid – beer, barramundi and french fries and took a walk through town. Really we were just taking a stroll down memory lane, since we were in Cooktown when our first grandchild was born. Naturally we stopped in at the RSL club, where we had also lingered in 2006 to “wet the baby’s head”. In the afternoon we re-visited the Cook museum. The museum building was a former convent and girl’s school and I had forgotten that all were evacuated during WW II, because of the threat of Japanese invasion. The building and much of Cooktown was billeted with American troops. The museum has an eclectic mixture of exhibits, with significant emphasis on Chinese immigration here. In the early days of the Australian gold rush, some 90 percent of inhabitants were from China and Cooktown even had a Chinese consul. There were also extensive displays of aboriginal artifacts, as well as the magnificent anchor from Cook’s Endeavour. (Annette wouldn’t believe me when I told her that the large ship’s propeller on display at the wharf was also from the Endeavour.) Upon our return to Nicko’s place, we met Kel and his wife who were busy measuring their boat for freight shipment to Vanuatu. They have bought property on an island across the narrow strait facing Luganville, the main town on the bigger island of Espiritu Santo. (President J F Kennedy’s PT100 patrol boat was based here in WW II). We had anchored off the Aore resort on this same island in September, 2005. What a small world!

Ed and Captain CookDoodleBug's dockwarning signEndeavour River

March 31, 2013

This morning we were invited for “tea” at Kel and Lynda’s place, a beautiful home overlooking the Cooktown anchorage on the Endeavour River. Kel told tales of rescuing his dog from a local python, that was easily as thick as a man’s arm. He had to wrestle to unwind the python from around the dog, until the dog could begin screaming again.

We could have chatted for hours but had arranged to meet “Tom” for a crocodile spotting tour (Cooktown Barra Charters 0408 036 887). We drove some 10 kilometers upriver to meet Tom and Annette and I immediately noticed that Tom’s boat was much smaller than Nicko’s. This is important, not because of its potentially shallower draft but because we are hunting large predators and we prefer to be sitting further from the edge of the boat. We cruised upstream, maneuvering around “snags” in the river (fallen trees) until we found the river completely blocked by flood debris. Up to this point, we had seen three small crocodiles but the tide was dropping and on our return downriver, we saw a much larger croc on a now exposed mudbank. We passed by the Marton boat ramp and headed up a side creek. Ahead of us were two small mudbanks. Suddenly the second mud bank heaved itself up and slid into the water. This monster was easily 5 meters long (over 16 feet) and bigger than the boat we were in. It lay on the river bed below us, as we drifted some few feet above it and suddenly I felt the need of afternoon tea with thin sliced cucumber sandwiches back in Cooktown. What an experience!