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Katherine to Coast Only 2800km

Written by Martin Pitwood. Uploaded 12 November 2006.

Australia, Country 26, Diary entry 6th-17th October 2006, Total distance in Australia: 12000km (estimated)

After dropping off Sophia and Jana at the Greyhound station in Katherine I checked into the nearest backpackers. I did this thinking that I might get a lie-in (sleeping in the tent is too hot within half an hour of the sun coming up) and that it would make it easier to find passengers to join me on the long drive to the east coast, but it was not worth it - the mattress was banana-shaped and when I finally did get to sleep I was woken up several times by a room-mate coming in noisily several times in the evening up to half past midnight and rearranging all his crinkly plastic bags, banging doors and leaving again, then restarting his crinkling at around 6am. Ignoring (or probably not understanding) my threats of violence if he woke me up one more time, I admitted defeat, got up and had a leisurely breakfast and diary-writing session. So much for a lie-in.

Katherine GorgeI relocated to a campsite just on the edge of town and was much more comfortable. OK so it's not ideal that I have to pack the tent down if I want to go somewhere but having my own space is more important to me now than I realised. I checked into the campsite but didn't set anything up, expecting to want to use the car later, but all I did was take a trip to the thermal pools - a crystal clear swimming hole just on the outskirts of town with water at a comfortable 32 degrees C. I lazed there for the afternoon and read a book, which was luxury. I had been on the go since leaving Darwin.

The following day I went out to Katherine Gorge, known to the traditional owners as Nitmiluk which has the wonderfully poetic meaning "cicada dreaming". I chose a 4km walk across the escarpment to a viewpoint over the first gorge (there is a series of 13 gorges, but to reach even the 8th requires overnight stops) and from there could climb down to the river and swim. A popular activity at Katherine Gorge is to explore by canoe, and I had seen three pass from the viewpoint, and one more passed when I was climbing down to the river, but once I was there I had the whole place to myself which was wonderful, even if I was a little worried about crocodiles. They say they monitor the river for salties, but when I was there before in 1999 swimming was forbidden. I didn't stray far from the bank, but whether that made it any safer I don't know. Unfortunately there was very little shade, which scuppered my plans to hang around there reading a book, so I returned to the visitors centre via another lookout. I was hot again on returning back (the escarpment has very little vegetation and the rocks absorb the sun's heat making the temperature around 10 degrees higher than by the river, i.e. more than 45 degrees C!) so I jumped in the water once more then returned to the car and returned to the campsite. Since it was only a few minutes' walk to the thermal pools I decided to go there again and laze away the rest of the afternoon.

Road train - all this is one vehicle!

The following four days were spent, basically, driving. It is a LONG WAY from Katherine to the east coast, even for someone who has driven as far as I have over the last fourteen months, and feels particularly tedious as there is NOTHING to see along the way. The changing outback scenery. Instead of changes every two seconds, imagine two daysSee the inline photos for samples of the scenery - what am I complaining about, the scenery changed twice, and the road had the occasional curve! (though sometimes as much as 50km apart!). Actually there was one attraction along the road - the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame in Longreach. It was actually a surprisingly good museum arranged in sections starting with the geological make-up of Australia, going through aboriginal culture to the arrival of the first settlers and explorers and how they lived, up to present-day station holders and how they live. Maybe it was only because it was the only thing to see along the route but I enjoyed it, though its location would make it a several hundred kilometre detour for anyone else to visit. Not sure it's worth that much!

Outback petrol pumpI finally arrived at Rockhampton (or "Rocky" as the locals call it) on the so-called Capricorn Coast, named after the Tropic of Capricorn which passes just a couple of kilometres south of the town. I got a photo of the marker but it was much more low-key than the equator crossing markers I'd photographed in Indonesia. But I suppose, who cares about a lousy tropic anyway? Well, I did, as it meant that when I left the town, as I did after a couple of hours in Rockhampton library, I was back into temperate climates and found that spring was in the air! OK so I was only just outside the tropics but immediately I noticed it being much more pleasantly cool at nights and I was sleeping better and longer as my tent wasn't turning into a greenhouse as soon as the sun came up.

Aussie Stockman's Hall of Fame, LongreachEach stretch of coastline in Queensland seems to have a name, and I travelled south along the superbly named Bruce Highway and spent the next couple of days on the Discovery Coast, so named because it was the second or third place that Captain Cook landed in Australia, in 1770. I headed for the town of 1770, simply because I'd never been to a town with a number as its name before, and then neighbouring Agnes Water. They'd obviously decided too many people wanted to camp on the beach so had banned that but as consolation had created a designated camping area with very basic facilities just a few minutes walk into the rainforest for those not wanting a campsite with full facilities. At $5 per person per night it was perfect for me. I stayed two nights, just so that I could leave the car totally stationary for a day - my first day of zero driving since I'd got the car through quarantine. It was bliss. I got up late and then did nothing apart from read a book, do some puzzles from a magazine I'd bought, sort through some photos on the computer and then take a walk along the coast from Workman's Beach, a beautiful golden sand beach just below where the campsite was, to the town beach and then into the town to buy a newspaper and some fish and chips. The fish was good, the chips weren't so good. I'm still searching for the proper British-style chip. If all else fails I know a place in Port Melbourne.

Bundaberg Distillery BarI crossed to the next stretch of coast - the Fraser Coast - where my next stop was Bundaberg, home of the famous rum of the same name. There's not a lot to see or do in "Bundy" which seems to exist for one purpose only - the production of rum. The one thing there is to do, which seemed a good reason for the detour, is visit the rum distillery.

The first thing I was greeted with when booking the tour tickets was the instruction to leave everything from my pockets in one of the lockers provided: camera, wallet, watch, everything! My initial reaction, I am ashamed to admit, was to assume that they were trying to rip me off in some way, like banning cameras just to they can sell more postcards. Obviously I haven't got the Asia out of my system yet... It turned out there were good reasons though. Anything with a battery could potentially malfunction and cause a spark, and with the maturing rum at 78% alcohol and giving off highly inflammable fumes, there is a real reason to be careful. What a disaster that would be, and in fact it had happened once before in the 1920s or 1930s I think, where a lightning strike set fire to the factory. Not only did it take a year to rebuild it, but since the rum has to mature for two years it meant that there was no rum for three years after the strike. It's hard to imagine the reaction if that were to happen today. Anyway, in addition to the explosion risk, the whole site is classified as a food manufacturing plant so they have to minimise the potential exposure to foreign objects, hence all other objects being banned.

The tour was interesting, but I'm no rum aficionado. Having been to whisk(e)y distilleries in both Ireland and Scotland I was interested to see how the process differs... but basically it doesn't, much. The base ingredient is molasses, in plentiful supply as sugar cane fills the fields for around 1000km along the Bruce Highway, but is of course seasonal so to ensure a year-round rum production they have molasses storage vats - huge rooms with gangways over great pools of molasses up to 5m deep! You can only imagine the smell, which was faintly pleasant when outside the building but overpoweringly sickly sweet when inside.

The distillation process was the same as for whisky and the immature rum is then transferred to oak casks to age for those two years, another big difference to whisky being that where whisky is stored in standard barrels the rum is matured in huge vats, each holding up to 50,000 litres! The room where these vats were situated smelled excellent - the oak smell mingling with the rum, but this was the area with the highest risk of explosion as the fumes are highly alcoholic. I tried to breathe some through my mouth :)

After maturation the rum is diluted to the normal 37% or over-proof 57%, bottled and sold, or alternatively sent to the tasting area, the best part of any distillery tour. I sampled the special triple-distilled version (the standard is distilled twice) but found it still to be rather harsh compared to a good whisky. I had to leave it half-finished as the tour included two drinks, which is enough to put you over the drink-drive limit. My second drink was one of their "premix" drinks. Bundaberg and cola ready-mixed in a can is an incredibly popular product, so much so that they now even sell it in kegs so bars can offer Bundaberg and cola on tap next to the other beers. I decided I could guess what that would taste like, and instead opted for their other new canned product, Dry & Lime, which is Bundaberg, dry ginger ale and a twist of lime. It sounded pretty disgusting but was very nice. I polished that one off so hung around for a while afterwards admiring the tat in the souvenir shop before driving off.

Microlight planeNext stop: Hervey Bay. Still on the Fraser Coast, which is named after Fraser Island, the world's largest sand island and a popular destination for 4x4 trippers, both locals in their own vehicles or travellers in rented ones. I had been there before during my previous trip to Australia but was unlucky with the weather that time, so I was interested in going again, but when I got to Hervey Bay I got information on Rainbow Beach and the Cooloola National Park and decided to go there. It offers much the same experience but had the advantages of being somewhere I hadn't been before and not requiring expensive permits or ferry crossings. That decision made, I lazed around on the beach for the rest of the day and caught up with laundry (how does everything get so dirty so quickly?!). In between my lazing though I caught sight of a poster advertising microlight aircraft flights, and a special offer this week only! This week only... well who's to know, but the price was certainly much cheaper than I'd ever seen such things before and I'd always wanted to give it a go so I quickly booked myself a 45 minute flight for the next morning.

The Great Sandy StraitThe pilot, Mark, picked me up at 8:20am while I was still stuffing sausage sandwich down my throat and drove me to the airport just outside town where the chariot was awaiting. Decked out with windproof jackets, a headset and microphone and helmet I climbed on board the trike and Mark climbed on in front of me, and after some checks with air-traffic control we were taxiing out towards the runway. The flight was amazing - rather lumpy at first as the wind was coming from over the town and quite turbulent, but as soon as we were over the Great Sandy Strait, the strait between the mainland and Fraser Island, the wind was nice and smooth and I had the opportunity to make some reasonable attempts at photographs. I was even allowed to have a go at flying the thing! It's basically a hang-glider with a little buggy hanging underneath it and the controls work by shifting one's weight underneath the wing. Very simple! I soon gave control back so I could carry on photographing though. The strait was aptly named as the sand banks made the water very shallow for most of the width, even rising out of the water to make islands at some points, and the water was incredibly calm and clear, so I could spot all sorts of marine animals in the water very clearly: turtles, dugongs, stingrays and even a pod of about 8 dolphins. From a boat it is always hard to spot these things unless they break the surface, but looking down from above they were easy to see and it was just magnificent.

Fraser Island seen from the airAll too soon my flight was over and we came in to land, very smoothly considering the turbulence, and I was returned to where I'd left the car. A "quick" diesel stop later (there's no such thing as a quick stop here, I'd found, the distances being so huge that it's at least 150 litres every time) and I was on my way down the coast to Rainbow Beach.

Rainbow BeachRainbow Beach itself was very nice with golden sand but quite crowded so I only took a quick walk before heading up to the top of an enormous sand dune where there were hang glider pilots preparing to launch themselves off into thin air. The dune was huge enough anyway but felt even bigger for the fact that it was composed of incredibly soft powdery sand and each step sunk in making it hard to get anywhere fast. Somehow the kids were climbing up the steep banks and sliding down but I certainly didn't have enough energy for that. I headed back to the car and drove on to find the track into the Cooloola National Park where I'd arranged to stay at another parks-operated camping area. The condition of the track was described as being suitable for high-clearance 4wd only and specified that sporty all-terrain vehicles such as CRVs (i.e. 4wd for style rather than off-road ability) might have problems getting through. That sounded interesting! The sand got deeper and deeper as the track wound its way into the woods, and being Sunday it had had a whole weekend of people in unsuitable vehicles getting bogged down and churning up the track trying to get unstuck. With my tyres lowered in pressure I was making good though difficult progress until I came up behind a Mitsubishi which was unable to make it up a slope where the sand was quite deep and churned up.

A big sand duneI offered some useful advice like "let some of the air out of your tyres" - they had done so already but only a few psi... such conditions require lowering pressures to half the normal pressure or even less, but that didn't help them get further forwards. The driver was obviously hoping I'd offer to tow him through, where I didn't even know yet whether I'd make it though on my own. He didn't seem to accept that for me to help like that I'd need to be in front of his car not behind it, and he wasn't totally stuck, he could reverse out and try again with a bigger run up. I let a bit more air out of my tyres while waiting to see what was going to happen next, and he finally realised I was serious about not pulling him through (if he made it through with my help he might not get home again!) and that he needed to reverse back and take a run up, and basically stop blocking the path as there were now a few vehicles wanting to pass in either direction. He reversed back and out of the way and I sailed up the slope no problem - good old Land Cruiser does it again! The camp site was a few km further along and the Mitsubishi never arrived.

Get a proper 4x4!!The following morning, after a night on what felt a bit more like a waterbed than usual thanks to the squidgy tyres (I was surprised how much of a difference it makes), I took the car down on to the beach and drove a few km along the hard-packed sand between high- and low-water mark to the end, from where I could climb to the top of the headland and enjoy the view from a lighthouse, before returning to the car and driving back along the beach. In around 30km of beach I passed maybe half a dozen other 4x4 vehicles parked with people fishing nearby, it was beautifully empty. Finally the beach ran out and I had to return to the road, reinflate my tyres and catch a little chain ferry across to Noosa.

Cooloola NPThe YHA at Noosa was superb. With plenty of comfortable communal areas for people to spread themselves around, I spread myself around and occupied one of their sofas and caught flies for the afternoon, and in the evening there was a little welcome reception which I attended even though I knew I was leaving the next morning simply because there was free wine. It gave me an opportunity to meet a load of interesting people and hear their travel stories so I could add a whole load more places to my list of places I still need to go to.

The next day I was heading for the Gold Coast, and specifically Palm Beach where Holly lives. I hadn't seen her for four years since she was studying in Chambery and for a few weeks lodged in our apartment. One more highlight along the way I decided to stop at was the Australia Zoo, home of the recently deceased Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin.

Koalas, Australia ZooThe zoo was much better than any I've ever been to before. Although founded by his parents, Steve Irwin had been in charge of the place for some years along with his wife Terri and his on-screen enthusiasm was obviously continued off-screen too. Many of the exhibits were captured crocodiles and each had their own private swimming pool, there were areas with kangaroos which the public could walk through, but with areas the kangaroos could retreat to away from the over-attentive children forcing the special roo food in their faces. All the animals had the choice of whether to be sociable or not. The elephants had a huge area in which to roam, the tortoises had vegetables that looked good enough for a human to eat and in general all the animals looked healthy and happy (well, it's difficult to tell if a koala's happy when they spend all their time asleep).

Crocodile show at Australia ZooIn the middle of the zoo was the Crocoseum where each day they have live animal shows: snakes, birds and then crocodiles. I found the pitch of each show ideally balanced between entertaining and educational. Particularly with crocodiles it's easy to make it a sensational show about how dangerous they are, but here they down-played that a lot and busted some of the myths. The message was more how to avoid the dangers, but presented in the typical Aussie irreverent way.

Kangaroo, Australia ZooOf course, the death of Steve Irwin cast a bit of a shadow over the whole place. Among the staff there was very much an attitude of "the show must go on" but with an area dedicated to floral tributes and khaki shirts with messages written on, and with video clips of his shows on screens around the place, it was hard to forget just how sadly his loss was felt here in Australia. R.I.P.

Back in the car again and into my first proper traffic jam since Jakarta as I skirted round the outside of Brisbane and down onto the Gold Coast, to Palm Beach where Holly was waiting for me...

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Comment from Takako from Brunei
Greeting from Brunei !! It is so wonderful . I could not see your page because my computer had out of order for long time . SO,,, ,,, I had click your page now...already you are in Australia !! So,,, Wonderful . How are you ? Hope , both of you are very fine !! There is one instructor since beginning of September so that I am very busy everyday . I will check your dialy as later ... take care & best regards.
15 Nov 2006 @ 14:26:22