CHAPTER 10 – QUEENSLAND 2
(Bert) En route we stop for breakfast at Surat and eat our bacon-eggs-tomato-toast meal outside as the weather is idyllic. While it is being prepared I check out the nearby village park and photograph three very colorful Red-rumped Parrots, another lifer. We leave the flat Outback and rise gradually in altitude, so gradually that the only way I know it is happening is to read the elevation on the GPS unit. We reach ~1400 ft., the crest of the Great Dividing Range in this part of south-central Queensland. This north-south mountain range spans Queensland, set in from the flat coastal area by 10-30 mi. East of the range is wet tropical rainforest; west of the range is dry tropical rainforest transitioning to outback. The rest of the day we are driving through hilly country with taller mountains at the horizon. Except for pavement conditions, it is fairly easy driving, somewhat like the southern Appalachians. However, the pavement is quite bumpy, a bit of a roller coaster with bounce, and is often broken at the edges. Shari does a lot of the driving because she doesn’t like the bounce when I drive (faster). Substantial rain has fallen here in the past few days and we later hear that this road was closed for a couple of days because of flooding. In flat areas there is little elevation difference between streambeds, the surrounding land and the highway. When we reach Rolleston the water runs over the road and I watch another vehicle drive through before I am willing to try it myself. We hope to camp at a wayside beside Emerald Botanic Gardens but when we arrive we see the river has flooded the gardens and is creeping to the edge of the parking lot. We hear conflicting stories of how much it will rise overnight, so Shari decides we will stay at a commercial campground at higher levels. Today’s drive is 611 km.
(Shari) Maybe if we had not stopped to see the 60-ft. replica of Van Gogh’s painting of The Sunflowers we would not be waiting on the side of the road now. I have seen thousands of signs that say “Road subject to flooding. Indicators show depth”. Yesterday as we crossed a section of a road covered with water, I even snapped a picture of the sign. The depth indicators I have seen are marked up to 2 meters or 6 feet. That is a lot of water and I just cannot believe the water would go that high. Little did I know!
(Bert) Soon after we pass Rio Tinto coal mining we read a sign warning “Next gas 167 km”. Fortunately, we have a nearly full tank. I notice the next map point is Belyando Crossing, 167 km, and as we soon find out, there is no one living between these points and there are neither buildings nor side roads. Twenty kilometers farther we see a long line of vehicles and suspect road construction holdup. Getting closer we can see people standing outside their vehicles and others sitting on lawn chairs. Suspecting a longer than usual wait, we soon hear five hours. Wow! How come? Flooded creeks. It is 10:20 when we arrive and for the next hour or so we debate with others the merits of our two choices: waiting for the creek level to fall or turning around and traveling via McKay. This area is so remote, there is only one alternate route and that one adds two hours travel time and much greater distance. McLere Creek has backed up road trains, a military convoy, high clearance Toyota Land Cruisers and certainly those driving sedans as well as the two German bicyclists. We are somewhere on the bottom of the list with a low clearance campervan.
(Shari) Not long after I took over my share of the driving, I see a long line of vehicles stopped ahead of me. I assume it is just another road construction blockage that only lets one lane pass at a time. As I drive closer, I see people out of their cars and some even sitting on lawn chairs. I shut the engine off as I presume we will have to wait maybe 15 to 30 min. We soon learn otherwise as we are told that about a kilometer ahead, the river breached its banks and the highway is under 18 in. of water and the water stretches at least two blocks along the road. An army truck goes past and tells us it will be at least 3-5 hr. before we can go through and then about 8 KM later an even worse river floods the road. Many people turn around to travel the McKay road, a 200 km longer route to Townsville and Cairns. We choose to wait it out as the atmosphere is interesting. We talk to many people, as they decide to wait or turn around. Two hours pass and we notice a couple of 4-wheel drive SUVs coming at us. They made the crossing. Many of those in our lineup start their engines to try it too. I am reminded of the time I feed the cockatoos and a brave one came first before the others flew in. I move our campervan closer to the river stream and I see fast-flowing muddy water. We wait around some more until just a handful of us chickens are left. One brave soul says he is going and we all decide to cross at once as it is easier to follow a vehicle in front as it pushes the water aside. It is scary. I snap pictures which are a better thing to do than look out the window at the water all around me. I imagine the headlines in tomorrow’s paper, “American Couple Swept Away by Raging River” with story details about bodies not found, only things recovered were 15 bird books and a pair of binoculars.
(Bert) After an hour of waiting I decide to hike to the front of the queue and see the creek for myself. At the top of a ridge I take photos of the bloated river and then show them to others who have waited longer than I. They tell me it has receded, as the guard rails are now visible. An hour later the first few vehicles arrive from the opposite side and each driver has a different report, some saying no problem, others telling about the force of the river pushing them sideways, some saying the next river is deeper, or stronger, or longer, some saying wait for the river to fall some more, some saying more rain is expected and it will soon rise. Who and what do you believe? A few on our side with the highest clearance make the crossing while the rest of us watch. A row of white stakes, separated by 10 yards or so, is the only way to judge the submerged road direction. Little by little groups of vehicles leave, alternating with small groups arriving from the opposite side. It is getting down to those of us with the lowest clearance and we finally decide to join the next group. We survive.
(Shari) We get across but then are stopped at the next crossing. This crossing is said to have had 6 ft. of water running over it earlier this morning but now it has about 24 in. I hear conflicting reports. The river is going down. The river is rising. I decide to make a simple experiment to determine just what is the case. I walk from a line in the pavement to the edge of the water and count 13 steps. I will come back later and count again. All I know is there is no brave cockatoo crossing yet. Finally someone from the other side tries it and we all watch as his car is pushed to the side of the road by the rushing water. He makes it but no one else tries for awhile and some turn around. The big trucks are the first ones to cross. I am told they go so slow so as not to loose traction. They hope the road is not washed out under the muddy water, or they would get stuck. We are getting a bit braver and decide to cross, maneuvering ourselves behind a road train. It moves so slowly, that I am afraid Bert will stall the engine (as he is still prone to do). I snap pictures again and am scared silly every time I look to the side with rushing water all around me. It seems to take forever to cross this section. When we reach the other side, I watch the faces of those watching us cross. All faces show concern, not for us I suspect but for themselves, wondering if they will make it. We do not drive much after that and stop at a road house for the night. I have had enough excitement for the day.
(Bert) Ten minutes later we reach Carrols Creek and notice it is much wider and deeper. Road trains churn the muddy water, creating turbulent wakes, tossing water over the front bumpers and splashing the headlamps, reaching half-way up the large tires and covering the axles. In spurts of three or four vehicles, they keep coming while we wait for the creek to fall. The level is too high for us and the sedans. By 2 PM I’m thinking we may be able to leave soon. At 2:15 three road trains arrive and will soon make the crossing. The road train plows furrows through the water, pushing it aside, so shorter vehicles can hide in its wake at water levels a few centimeters lower. Now is our time and I pull in line behind the second road train, following it across the creek with only about a 12 ft. gap between us. It is an eerie feeling as the swiftly flowing river surrounds me on all sides, muddy water splashes up, but the tires stay firmly on the hidden pavement. I focus on the truck’s bumper and wish he would drive faster. We cross safely on to high ground. Now, everything suggests we are driving through The Outback, although a much greener version, undoubtedly owing to the unseasonal rains. Several hours later we reach Belyando Crossing, a roadhouse, not a village, and join other campers we met during the creek crossings. I prepare a slideshow of the photos I took and we relive the experience while watching my computer screen.
(Bert) We get a late start from Belyando Crossing because the friends we met yesterday want copies of the river crossing slideshow I showed them and the journal we wrote. So when I stop at a pullout an hour later the bright sunlight has already heated up the morning. I saw fairy-wrens yesterday and now see about ten again. Unlike the ones I’ve been seeing for a month, these drab females/juveniles have neither blue in tails nor orange around eyes. A fitting description would be “non-descript”. It’s a new one for me, Red-backed Fairy-Wren, a name which clearly applies to the male, not the ones I saw.
We are still driving through The Outback on a straight, flat red road. Our surroundings are very green, however. Yet again, no one lives here until we reach Charters Towers, a distance of 198 km. We stop early because the campground has Internet which we have been without for five days. While sitting outside our rig at 5 PM we watch the busy birds flying all around us. We watch a pair of Australian Figbirds take turns incubating eggs in a nest 10 ft. up and 20 ft. laterally from us. They exchange places about every 15 min. A male Magpie-Lark perches nearby and I begin to wonder what it is up to. Then I crane my neck to the branch above my chair and see the female sitting on a nest. My sister e-mailed me today about the aspens changing colors in the Rocky Mountains. Winter and cold weather will soon follow. What a contrast to our situation here where it is T-shirt and shorts weather, all the trees are leafed out in shiny green, myriad flowers are in full bloom and the birds are busy raising new broods.
(Bert) We descend from mountains to sea along a gentle pass. Traffic builds up with each kilometer and Townsville feels huge compared to where we have been since Sydney. When we check into the campground, the manager/owner tells us this has been the wettest Queensland September on record. The forecast says we can expect more, though this afternoon is pleasantly warm and sunny. Red flowers are in bloom around our campsite and Brown Honeyeaters are sticking their curved bills in them, lapping up the sweet nectar. On the intensely green lawn is a pair of Chestnut-breasted Mannikins, about the size of House Sparrows and strikingly colorful with sharp separations between patches of chestnut brown, black, white and gray, and a thick grosbeak-like bluish bill. I’ve seen the species only once before, on the Polynesian island of Moorea in 1987.
Shari read that we can see grass-owls at dusk at nearby wetlands. I suspect we are out of season and when we arrive at the visitor center we find out this is the case. Nonetheless, I want to explore the wetlands anyway. At the grassy entrance I am met by a mob of Agile Wallabies intently feeding. I count to 50 and suspect more are hiding in the tall grass, so this grouping certainly deserves the “mob” designation. Also in the grass are Crimson Finches with fiery red faces and tails. I check off more species and get as far as the bird hide before heading back as darkness closes in. At the hide I photograph a Willie Wagtail sitting on a nest, not 6 ft. from my camera lens. The other time I saw a nesting Willie Wagtail was July 11. Unlike most of our USA/Canada birds, these have no set nesting time.
We follow birding with take-out dinner from KFC. When it was still called Kentucky Fried Chicken we used to indulge often, but I’ll bet it has been more than a decade since we had their mouth-watering chicken. KFC restaurants are throughout the Australia we have visited, at least in the larger towns. If my taste bud memory serves me well, it is the same tasty recipe we dined on in the USA.
(Bert) We take a direct route to Cairns, one we haven’t driven before. I am struck by how much this area looks like Belize: expansive fields of sugarcane, groves of banana trees, old British colonial-style farm homes, the backdrop of green mountains and the proximity of the sea, the humidity and warm weather.
When we reach Cairns we stop in at the Kea dealership and get a few minor repairs done on RV appliances and fixtures. We are impressed on how fast these are taken care of and we are soon on our way again. Our Cairns campsite is the same one we stayed at before. This time we book it for more than a week. What a contrast this will be, staying at one spot so long. It will give us plenty of time to finish the last preparations for the caravan.
(Bert) Rained overnight, rained intermittently in the morning, rained heavily in the afternoon. No matter, not to worry! Spent a dry day inside, on the computer, looking out at the wet world.
(Shari) How easy! A church is right across the street from the campground. It starts at 9 AM and we are ready with umbrellas in hand, walking through the puddles. The sign says it is a Community Church. I guess we will find out what that is all about. We are greeted by a nice couple who already know we are from the U.S. from our accent. They also assume we are staying at the caravan park across the street. The leader of the service introduces us and we are the only visitors in about 50 people this rainy morning. I gather attendance is down because this is the last day of the school holidays and families are out of town. There is a nice mixture of young and old and black and white. In style, the service is more Baptist than Lutheran, with lots of hymn signing, a couple of testimonials and a sermon. It is very long since communion is also served. The messages are powerful. One man talks about getting his temporary Australia visa (he is Danish) and his witnessing to a friend dying of cancer. Another talks about how his family influenced him to become a Christian. The sermon relies heavily on the glory that awaits us after death if we believe and ask forgiveness. We do not attend the after service tea but slog through the rainy streets back to the RV and a nice breakfast of bacon and eggs cooked by Shari. I balance our credit card, which is a task since I do not have a printer and have to have two windows open at the same time, bouncing from one to the other. Water pours from the heavens all day and it is another one spent inside the RV.
(Bert) In the rain, sheltered by umbrellas, we walk to the community church across the street from the campground. Visiting churches is an interesting cultural experience as well as a spiritual experience. This one is again different from others in that it is multi-cultural and includes a wide spread of ages. Fewer are our age, most are younger, including college age young people. The mix includes African blacks, other blacks that seem more Caribbean than aboriginal, a medical student, a ship captain, a Dane who is one of the speakers, and many more Australians of European origin. The Dane’s message is elegant in a colloquial sense, emotional to the point of his suppressed tears and an uncomfortable balance of tragedy and joy. Although we don’t know the history, apparently the Dane recently survived a severe medical condition and at the same time got his Australian visa extended three years as of this week. A year or more ago he befriended a star tennis player, a young Dane now an Australian. While among the top players in Australia, the tennis star was diagnosed with an incurable cancer and just heard he may have as little as a week to live. The tennis star is not a Christian, and in fact his Danish hippie friends have offered all kinds of potions, health drugs and self-help therapies to no avail. Our speaker will be visiting his friend this afternoon and plans on furthering his witness to Christianity and its eternal life message. At this point the speaker is near tears as he reflects on his friend and the importance of his message to him. He has us rapt in attention and no one stirs. We all empathize with his position and recognize life could end at any time.
Though rain tinkled the church windows and thumped the roof, it cleared just as we were leaving services. With a vengeance, it resumed later this afternoon. Shari read on the Internet that Cairns received 33 mm (1.3 in.) of rain yesterday and probably the same today. That is the same as the entire September average rainfall. This September the area received 103.6 mm (4 in.), more than three times the average for this dry season month. Apparently La Niña conditions prevail in the Pacific.
(Bert) Forecast was more rain, but it didn’t. A beautiful day! I’ve finished up processing photos that I’ve taken in the past 122 days. By that I mean I’ve cropped, adjusted, labeled, arranged and otherwise edited the photos. I don’t know how many I deleted, but it must be three or four times the number I’ve saved, which is 5154 photos. Viewed high-speed at one per second, it would take about an hour and a half to see them all. Of course, we are only about two-thirds through our trip, so more will be added.
Other statistics, totally unrelated, is the price of diesel. When we left Texas the price of diesel was $2.92/gal. After converting liters and dollars, New Zealand prices ranged from US$3.01 to $3.69 with an average of $3.21/gal, i.e., not much more than Texas, perhaps because of a favorable exchange rate. Australia, however, is much higher, especially when we traveled in The Outback where fuel stations are far and few between. In Australia, prices ranged from US$4.09 to US$6.32, with an average of $4.79/gal.
On the RV’s dashboard is a gauge that shows estimated kilometers that can be driven using existing fuel. I watch that gauge a lot and I noticed a big difference based on speed. Under normal driving, about 70-100 kph, a full tank will allow 570 km (17 mpg). But in The Outback, the day I drove 120 kph, fuel consumption was worse than 11 mpg. Since this was also the area where we were paying the highest fuel prices, that 300 mi. day consumed an extra 10 gal. fuel and costs us US$60 more because I drove faster. I slowed to 100 kph the next day.
The smaller campervan we rented in New Zealand was much more fuel efficient and for the 2646 mi. we drove there, we only used 118 gal. diesel. However, thus far in Australia we have consumed 769 gal. diesel. Although I try hard to live “green”, our life style is not energy efficient when it comes to petroleum. I suspect, though, a lot of workers commuting between suburbs and cities may also consume 7 gal. per day, as we have in the past 122 days.
(Shari) So much for weather reports! The Internet informed me we had a 60-80% chance of rain today through Thursday. Instead, the sun is out all day long. Poor Bert can hardly get anything accomplished as the campground is abuzz with activity. Attractive women in their 20s stroll past on their way to the bathrooms. The woman next door does housekeeping chores to the RV. Other women are in the swimming pool across the narrow alley from our window. All are clad in skimpy bikinis. Poor Bert, my eye! I don’t feel sorry for him at all.
Campground workers are raking tropical flower petals that have fallen to the ground from the rain. The temperature is idyllic with a gentle sea breeze to keep things cool. We take a short walk before sitting outside in the shade and watch movie number 7 of the ten I brought from home.
(Bert) Taking a break from computer work of the past few days, I go birding this morning soon after first light, now about 5:30. I walk through the Cairns Cemetery and then to Centenary Lakes and Cairns Botanic Gardens, birding on my own until 8:30 when the weekly birding group meets. Brian is leading today and our group includes a couple from Canada and two ladies from Tasmania. What a contrast today is compared to July 20 when I made the same walk with the group. Then the birds were so new to me and I photographed practically everything I saw. Today I recognize all of them immediately, except one, and I am choosy about which to photograph. The new one is Collared Kingfisher, a pair perched along a muddy creek. We see them 50 yards off and the group is surprised that I can sneak up to the birds, gingerly creeping a few feet at a time and snapping photos until I stand opposite the two on the narrow creek. Brian shows us the tree cavities drilled by Fig-Parrots, the smallest of Australian parrots and only 5½ inches in length. We do not find the parrots at home, though the holes are interesting. Generally, parrots occupy existing tree cavities and I cannot think of other parrots that dig their own as these do. Birds I photograph today, but not previously, are Black Butcherbird, Yellow Oriole, Brown-backed Honeyeater and Pied Imperial-Pigeon. The Imperial-Pigeons are royally elegant with white feathers so bright they seem to glow. They occupy the tree canopies and when they fly I notice the offsetting black in their wings. The Imperial-Pigeons were not here in July and the field guide says they nest and roost on offshore islands.
(Shari) I vaguely hear Bert when he leaves the RV to meet a birding group. Boy oh boy, I can get up when I please. Yet, 7:15 finds me up as I cannot fall back to sleep. I shower and just dawdle the morning away, enjoying the nice weather. After lunch we walk to the organic food store, intending to buy lettuce, bread and veggies, but the prices are so outrageous, I decide we might as well eat out. Oh gee, what a punishment! We drive close to our favorite restaurant in Cairns and walk Shields Street. Last time we were here we saw the bats circling about and we want to time this occurrence. However, we do not see any bats hanging from the trees. I ask at a shop and the clerk tells us where they roost. We walk to that place and sure enough, hundreds of bats are chattering and hanging high up in the trees. Since it is too early for them to take off, we decide to get a beer and then eat dinner. We sit at a table with a really friendly guy who comes to Cairns every six weeks because he flies to Papua New Guinea from here. He works as a firemen in the copper mines there and tells us that the country is not safe. No one goes out at night for sure. He has a family in Adelaide that he gets to visit for two weeks every six. The money is good he says but the life is hard and after two years he is thinking of quitting. He and a buddy want to travel Route 66 in the USA and he asks us whether he should take a tour or do it on his own. We recommend renting a car and getting a map. We eat steak, roast, veggies, salad and popovers as we chat with him. After finishing dinner, I notice the bats in the air. We quickly say our goodbyes to the man and hurry to the roosting location noting the time of this occurrence so that we can repeat the experience for the group on Sunday.
(Bert) In late afternoon we drive to downtown Cairns to a restaurant with great meals at low prices, starting with a tall beer and sitting outside. On the same table is a young Australian who works in New Guinea for a copper and gold mining company. He has been told that birds-of-paradise are near where he works, but he has not seen them through lack of interest. That wouldn’t be me! We timed our dinner so that we would finish about dusk. The flying-foxes are now in the air and I quickly grab my camera and move into the open air to photograph the helter-skelter masses of black wings canvassing the darkened skies. My first few photos are distinct. The light fades quickly and the shutter remains open longer, creating photos of blurred wings, then photos of mere traces of black on dark blue. I think these photos will be wasted, but later when I put them up on the computer screen, I find them rather artistic with their special effects.
(Bert) Finally, by noon I’ve finished up on formatting the road log pages Shari created and on my bird checklists, converting everything into PDF files and then using Adobe Acrobat to combine the PDF pages into books and add page numbers. I put the completed files on a memory stick and we head to a print shop that will be able to produce the two booklets we will distribute. We are told they will be ready on Friday. I’m glad that task is done.
(Bert) They are on their way! Norm and Cindy are already in Australia and are touring Ayers Rock now. Marie e-mailed and said she and Chris are in transit today. The others will be taking off from the USA soon too. All have been counting the days and are anxious to arrive.
(Bert) We visit the seashore at high tide, but it is so high that no mudflats are left for shorebirds and all I see is a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits. We decide to find the mangrove boardwalk I missed on our previous visit. Half the boardwalk is closed for maintenance, so I take the other half. I suspect mosquitoes in the swamp so I put on DEET and am glad I did. An eerie place to walk, the 600-meter boardwalk is suspended a couple feet above the water and is densely surrounded by a closed canopy of mangroves, some labeled as Grey Mangrove, Smooth Fruited Yellow Mangrove and Long Stilt Mangrove. These are much more upright, straight-trunked mangroves than the ones I see in Central America. Perhaps what makes it eerie is the reverberation of calling birds and the plunking of crabs and fish as I frighten them from my path. Purplish-black crabs with hairy legs and orange claws cling to the base of the mangroves. Giant Mudskippers, a fish that spends much of its life out of water, jump from below the mud-gray surface and rest on water-logged horizontal roots.
Next, after circumventing miles of snarled vehicles encumbered by workers trimming the central boulevard, we go to Cairns Botanic Gardens. Although I’ve visited several times, Shari hasn’t been here and is impressed with the floral displays. At the entrance to one of the specialty buildings I see a swift bird, almost hummingbird-like, dash in and soon exit. I look at the roof of the entrance and see a woven chain of leaf litter and twigs. I suspect this is a nest in process, so stand aside, adjust my camera focal length and wait. Every minute or so the Yellow-bellied Sunbird returns with a fragment to add to the suspended cluster. Its gray wings flutter so fast I capture only spread webs or dull blurs, but its golden body glows and its long arched black bill sometimes is frozen by the camera lens.
Although I would stay longer, the heat and humidity encourages Shari to seek air-conditioning. We return to the seashore and this time the tide is out, exposing a hundred yards of mudflats, visited by Terek Sandpipers, Grey-tailed Tattlers, Whimbrels, Bar-tailed Godwits, a Striated Heron and a small flock of sandpipers too distant to decipher. I see a giant bird with an immensely long, strongly down-curved bill. It is much larger than the Whimbrels. I take lots of photos of the Eastern Curlew, my first sighting.
(Shari) I am going stir crazy. All my work is completed and I can hardly wait for the caravan to start. So Bert suggests we go to the Botanic Gardens in town. We time the trip with high tide and then hope to pick up our stuff that is to be finished this morning at the printer. The tide is too high and no birds are to be seen but the gardens are fantastic. We visit the orchid house and the fern house where a sunbird is making a nest. I snap pictures of strange and beautiful colorful flowers. However, it gets muggy and hot and I am ready to quit by 11. We head to The Esplanade again and I call the printer. She is “out back” and will return my call. We eat lunch and decide to drive to the printer’s place anyway, and find that she has not even started the job but promises to have it ready this afternoon. We wait all afternoon but receive no call. Now I start to worry about Plan B. We watch the second to last of our movies before going to bed.
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