CHAPTER 3 – QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA
(Shari) When you buy cheap airline tickets, you have to put up with some inconveniences. Our inconvenience is the departure time. Our flight departs Christchurch at 7 AM. With a 2-hr. lead time, we have to be at the airport at 5. You know what that means? I have to get up at 4:30 AM. I kind of roll out of bed, just as our host knocks on our door. I wash up, dress and close my suitcases. Bert says my eyes look bloodshot. I am not surprised since I woke up all night afraid I would miss the two alarms I set.
I am surprised at the large numbers of people at the airport at this ungodly hour. We have to wait in line to check in and wait in line to pay our export tax and wait in line to go through security. Our 2-hr. lead time is pretty much used up when we arrive at the gate. My suitcase is 73 lb. and I am told to take out 3 lb. I grab my empty backpack and stuff it with a coffee mug and a fan. Now I have two carry-ons that I hope no one sees. Bert sweet talks the clerk into allowing us to have our extra weight without cost. She does have to get permission from a supervisor but eventually allows it. She told us it would cost some $200 odd dollars. Ridiculous, as that is nearly the price of the airfare. Bert is handling most of these issues as I have not become awake yet. I just kind of operate in a fog and follow him. We get on the plane and I immediately fall asleep.
(Bert) A gentle knock on our bedroom door precedes the three alarms we have set for 4:30 AM. We are on the runway, ready for take-off, before first light. I read a hundred pages in the book Shari just finished and get in a short nap before we land in Brisbane and set back our watches two hours. My luggage is delayed when the long case where I packed my spotting scope tripod is transferred to oversized articles and then misplaced for a half hour. The next delay is the agricultural check where our hiking shoes are declared dirty and the official must take them into another room to scrub them. We make up lost time when a taxi awaits us without delay and we are soon at the RV rental offices.
(Shari) Arriving in Brisbane, we catch a cab to our camper rental. For those of you guessing what size camper we get, you probably win. We get the 4-berth. It is so luxurious and we do not have to suck in our bellies to pass each other. There really is no comparison. The first one was like a van with a bed, sink and toilet crammed in. This one is a Class C camper. No more taking down a table to set up a bed. Bert will sleep above the cab and I will sleep on the couch. No more having to remove things from the microwave to use it and then put it back so you can sit down. There is plenty of cabinet space and we even have extra room. So even though it costs us more, we will not kill each other. After our orientation to the 4-berth, we take off and drive 25 km to our first campground. Since we have not had breakfast and it is now 2 PM, we decide to walk three blocks to a shopping center, eat lunch and buy groceries. Those tasks accomplished, we unpack: something we can both do at the same time. It still takes longer than we anticipate and I am bushed at task’s end. The cook decides sandwiches and soup is good enough. By 7 (9 PM New Zealand time) we are both asleep. We have only been up 15 hr. but it seems like much more.
(Bert) Shari is delighted with the upgrade to a larger vehicle, where two people can pass each other inside without unbalancing contortions. Brisbane is a busier city than I imagined and I weave through traffic with three women giving me directions: May in our GPS, an unnamed lady in the RV’s GPS and Shari. I don’t make any wrong turns and we arrive at our campsite for the next few nights. In late afternoon while adjusting to the new RV, I glance out of the window and see a Crested Pigeon walking on the ground, a species I didn’t recall seeing before until I looked it up in my computer database and see that I recorded one in August 1987 in the Blue Mountains.
(Shari) I cannot believe I slept for 12 hr., much less that both of us did. We start to catch up on computer work, eat lunch and take a drive to reconnoiter birding sites. We program May and off we go to a number of national forests in the area stopping first at the visitor center to gather information, buy another bird book and get a map. Up the mountain we go, stopping at every scenic viewpoint available. Most times when we get out, we see new birds. For me everything is new and I suppose the birds I see today are common to an Australian birder. One of the stops sounds like the jungle with raucous animal noises. A flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos noisily flies by, some landing in a nearby tree showing off their pretty yellow crest. I find a kookaburra sitting in the proverbial gum tree staring at me as I stare at it with my binoculars. At the top of the mountain, Bert finds a half-dozen new birds in a short period of time while I program May to take us to our next stop. Amazingly he sees an owl on our way down. He just astounds me sometimes. I too saw a dark and light colored bird fly past our windshield. Bert’s neck cranes left and a few meters down the road, he tells me he just saw an owl. How does he know that? He said he saw it in a tree looking down at him as we past. How did he know what tree to look at and how far up the tree? Should I believe him? It could have been one of those Australian Magpies for all I saw. Stopping at the first available pullout he gets out his bird book and starts to page through the owl section. He points to an owl called Powerful and says that is what I saw. Just incredible and he can’t find salad dressing in the cabinet. Go figure! Back in the city, May tells us where to turn but when she says turn left then right, we often get mixed up and boy did we get mixed up today. She recalculated many times but eventually got us to where we wanted to go. Unfortunately, we have to go there again tomorrow so we can make a road log and not this convoluted route we took today. Even if we carpooled, and someone made a wrong turn, without a GPS they could get hopelessly lost on roads the run in circles rather than squares. So our plans are to go back in the morning to log it correctly and then reconnoiter another birding location on the other end of town. As we again drive the streets in darkness and are finally getting near the campground, Bert says that he can smell the pizza. Yesterday, a man at camp told us about a pizza place three blocks away from the campground that has a special on Tuesdays; AU$5.95 for a large pizza. So we walk over there, order two Supremes, one for now and one for the freezer, get some beer and groceries while we wait and take the boxes home. Bert makes a salad while I put away the groceries and then we eat one of the large pizzas with a great salad from fresh ingredients washed down with IPA beer. Another fine day!
(Bert) I’m surprised what walks by our campervan in this crowded city campground. We have large picture windows throughout and a Sacred Ibis (Australian White Ibis) just strutted by. Parrots are calling from the trees and Noisy Miners are living up to their name. The campground owner told me about Tawny Frogmouths roosting near one of the new tent sites but I haven’t seen them yet.
After lunch we head to the coastal mountains outside Brisbane, again checking out sites we will visit later. Shari joins me in a walk around one site and she even has her binoculars and is spotting birds before I do. She points to a Laughing Kookaburra perched in a tree and a flock of noisy white birds that I tell her are Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. We watch turkeys tamed by picnickers tempting them with food. They look emaciated compared to our Wild Turkeys and their tails fold vertically instead of horizontally; they are called Australian Brush-Turkeys. I see a few Spur-winged Plovers and many Australian Magpies, which were so common in New Zealand I found them daily. A pair of gorgeous pink Galahs is at the edge of a clearing and I’m sure we will see many of these during our Australian travels.
We stop at a few other sites, but the best is near the top of the mountains. I haven’t much time to bird here and the dark skies are dimming my visibility. I’m not carrying a field guide and haven’t learned many Australian birds yet, so I jot down quick notes on what I am seeing. Later when I sort through the notes I identify Golden Whistler, Varied Triller, Eastern Yellow Robin and Wonga Pigeon. A pair of red parrots diverts my attention and this species I’m pretty sure I’ve seen before. I mark down “red parrot, black and blue wings, blue throat, long tail” and when I return to the RV I quickly find it in the book as Crimson Rosella.
On our downhill drive we are still in the dense forest when we see a large bird glide effortlessly across the narrow road. It alights on a horizontal branch that reaches to the road and I get a perfect instant image of a large and tall gray-brown owl with dark goggles around bright eyes. This is the target bird I was hoping to find when the caravan visits here and now I’ve already seen it, a Powerful Owl, Australia’s largest owl and restricted to the southeastern coastal range.
(Bert) After almost a month of non-stop traveling and sightseeing, we do not go anywhere today. The morning’s rain is one inducement, but the other is our backlog of journal writing, road log transcriptions, e-mail, photo downloads, etc. Bird watching continues, though, through our many tinted glass windows that act as one-way mirrors. Birds perch on a clothes line within a few feet of the rear windows, unaware of our presence and some of my photos are so close, they are only head shots. One is a Pied Butcherbird, most easily separated from other black-and-white birds by its black-and-white bill. In mid afternoon I venture outside to enjoy the clear skies and warm weather. For being located in the middle of a busy city, this campsite is a surprising active birding site. I walk on a sidewalk path beside a creek leading to a park. The Torresian Crows nasal call is so oft repeated it is almost irritating. What is it begging for? Contrastingly, the Noisy Miner’s song is so varied and musical it is a one-piece orchestra. I photograph a pair attending a nest mostly hidden in the leaves of a tall tree. I also photograph Pacific Black Duck, Little Pied Cormorant, Dusky Moorhen, Rainbow Lorikeet, Brown Cuckoo-Dove and a confrontation between a Sacred Ibis and Torresian Crow about who can occupy the tree branch.
(Bert) The road narrows as we wiggle, serpentine and zigzag through S-curves, hairpins and horseshoes up the steep mountain. Some are so sharp the horseshoe nearly touches at its open ends, but for a vertical drop of a dozen feet. The racecar on my GPS track shows I am hanging off the cliff or skidding into the forest more times than I’m following the thin line. One-way signs mark two-way traffic, an encounter endured by quick brakes, putting wheels at the extreme edge and creeping past each other. When the road broadens from one lane, it increases to one and a half lanes. Higher up, we are away from the cliff but into dense forest with rigidly erect towering trees paneling the road edge. On one side they bear red reflector badges, the other side wears white circular badges. Many sideswiped trees display wounded bark. The one-hour uphill climb opens to a national park sign and an eagerly met parking lot.
We see our first marsupial and not just one. The grounds abound in Red-necked Pademelons, a miniature relative of the kangaroo standing about knee-high, but usually bent over with head toward grass and probing for food. They seem to be everywhere, ignoring our presence unless we get within 8 ft. Gray-brown in color, I notice a few have bulging white bellies and then we discover each of these is carrying a joey in its pouch. One of them is old enough to be out of the pouch, though it stays within hair’s breadth of its mother.
Birds are everywhere too. Flocks of gaudy red and blue Crimson Rosellas fly overhead, perch on trees and alight on guests at a feeding station. A see a few even more splendid parrots, the green and scarlet Australian King-Parrots. Tiny Red-browed Finches look like birds you would see in specialty pet stores. We nestle the RV into a tight campsite almost enclosed in dense forest top to bottom. I take out lawn chairs and a table, spread out my bird books and attempt to identify species from my notes, yet constantly distracted by those feeding close by. A brush-turkey is scratching a hole in the soft loam of the forest floor. Taking advantage of the turkey’s labor, a Yellow Robin and a pair of Yellow-throated Scrubwrens dart in and out of the hole seeing what insects have been stirred up.
When the temperature drops and darkness ensues, we move inside although it is not much warmer. Without electricity it may be a cold night, so I keep on my sweatshirt in bed.
(Shari) Only a roaring fire shared with good friends would make this day end on a more perfect note. We spent the day at the world-renowned birding lodge, O’Reillys, in Lamington National Park. Now its 5 PM, almost pitch dark outside, and we are sharing the campground next door to the lodge with a few tents and one or two other campervans. Of course we are without power and since we will have no heat–our rig is electric only–I think we will hit the sack early. We will see just how good our batteries behave. The next time we come here we will be staying in private villas and a bus will be driving us up. I am happy about the bus part since the drive up here is an experience in itself. Most of the 30 km is one-way sealed surface with numerous signs warning drivers of blind curves, be prepared to stop, give way and yield for the continuous sections of one-way pavement, each about 900 to 1200 ft. in duration and separated about as much by two skinny lanes or a bump in the road to pull off should you encounter another vehicle. The total distance is composed of constant sharp and very sharp S-curves, or should I say U-curves. This is a road that R-Tent-III definitely would NOT negotiate and the biggest vehicle I see either coming or going is ours. Bert does fine and we get here by noon to check out the place and eat lunch with a view of the mountains to die for.
Lamington National Park is like birding in Costa Rica: one new bird after
another. Even the tiny finches display beautiful colors. I finally see the
famous bower bird that Bert has talked about: the one that makes its nest of
stolen decorations, mainly blue in color. The prettier female, with its sage
green speckling, is in stark contrast to the dark starling-like male. The best
things I see today are pademelons. Sounding like a big fruit of some kind, they
actually are small mammals as plentiful in this park as squirrels in ours. Heads
shaped like an opossum and bodies like a small 24-in. kangaroo, they nibble the
grass all day long, and the forest service does not have to mow the grass. As
the park worker explains to me, “They are eating machines”. Some of them have
babies in their pouch and as the mama feeds on the grass, the baby’s head pokes
out to nibble too.
(Bert) I awaken early and lie in bed until first light before crawling out of
the warmth and venturing outside. My first birds of the morning are a pair of
Satin Bowerbirds, their pretty colors dimmed by forest shadows, overcast skies
and a sun not yet over the horizon. I take photos of birds using an extreme ISO
value of 3200, then return to the RV for my flash unit. I find many of the same
birds I saw yesterday, getting even better looks at the Superb Fairy-wrens, the
males strikingly blue with long vertical tails. Tossing leaves like a towhee, I
watch several dark olive birds with contrasting white throats and males sporting
a crest. Another lifer, these are Eastern Whipbirds, a name I practice
remembering all morning as I cannot think of a way to associate “whip” with any
physical feature. Perhaps it is the way they whip up the forest floor.
A quick movement across the forest floor reminds me of a mouse, though I would not expect any in this locale and habitat. I try to find it with my binoculars as it scurries faster than I raise the eyepieces. Finally I gather enough features to describe it to one of the park rangers later. She tells me it is a Brown Antechinus, although can’t spell it when I ask. She gets out a mammal book, seeing it is Antechinus stratii, a very small marsupial. Not even remotely related to a mouse, the Antechinus is a good example of convergent evolution.
By 10 AM we are on the downhill road and an hour later we reach the green valley below. A pheasant-like bird glides low across the road and I pull to the side at a wide driveway. Shari notices the owner is selling homemade preserved olives; I look up the bird we saw and see it is a Pheasant Coucal. Shari buys a jar of olives; I record another life bird.
We turn farther inland toward Stanthorpe and travel through terrain that is my image of Australia: rolling hills, dry brown fields and pastures with scattered Eucalyptus and more distant and steeper hills wrapped in dry green forests, everything mutely shaded lackluster winter.
(Bert) “Look! In the field to the left!” I exclaim. It’s a kangaroo sitting on its haunches. I turn the corner where the sign points to Girraween National Park. We stop at the Visitor’s Center to begin hiking and within minutes we see another kangaroo and then another. These are Eastern Gray Kangaroos, large and a brown shade of gray, and seem nonchalant about our presence. One is scratching its ears and rubbing its face with its front paws; the other is lounging in dry grass looking at us with a lack of curiosity. During a morning walk we encounter nine kangaroos, including a family of four. The buck doesn’t move from his lazed position even as we stay on the path less than 3 ft. away; the two younger ones are shyer and hop out of the path. Their high hops and broad jumps ideally transport them over the grass and around the brush. In many ways kangaroos are the southern equivalent of deer, but what a dramatically different body style!
(Shari) Going off the caravan route, we head west to an area Bert wants to check out. Boy, he owes me a lot of shopping time, since all we do is bird! I do not really mind since I get to see great stuff, but don’t tell him that. Today we see our first kangaroos. They say kangaroos are as plentiful in Australia as deer are in Wisconsin. According to the road kill, that seems about right. For awhile there I thought the only kangaroo we were going to see were dead ones. But as we travel the highway today, we see some in a field and then nine more in a national park.
I see many 4-wheel drive cars and trucks with big pipes coming off of one side, much like the exhaust pipe on a big 18-wheeler truck. We surmise it is the air intake and allows the vehicle to travel through water. We travel over many places that have warnings that the road is prone to floods. When we reach the park, we visit the information center and walk a loop around the campground. The campground is very nice with spacious sites under the trees. Unfortunately it has no electricity, and as you know our camper’s heater is electric only. So I put the nix on staying here tonight when I read the low temperature is going to be 31º. I walk with Bert for the first part of the morning, but after lunch he goes on a 2-hr. walk by himself, while I try to balance our credit card statement that I pulled off the Internet last night. Without a printer, I have to look at the statement in one window on the computer and another window open with Quicken, the program I use to balance. Well, I cannot get the statement to balance, so I have to handwrite all the transactions on a piece of paper so I can check them off to verify I have entered them in the computer. By about this time I run out of computer battery power and have to wait until tonight to finish.
(Bert) Shari shows a real interest in birding with me, perhaps because I don’t overwhelm her with bird identifications. Here I only remember a few of the bird names and with each one we see I jot down notes, then take photos. Shari often finds the birds first and is quicker at seeing where they fly. Together we match notes and photos to the bird book I’m carrying in my back pocket. We identify Spotted Pardalote–a colorful little bird with a golden throat and a polka dot pattern on its crown–Yellow-tufted Honeyeater and Rufous Whistler. Later, while Shari is preparing lunch I photograph White-throated Treecreeper and Scarlet Robin. Shari takes a nap and I hike to The Junction, a scenic route over granite slabs sloping down to a fast moving stream. The geology of this park at the northern end of the New England tablelands is a result of colliding tectonic plates and molten magma solidified to form large expanses of intact granite. Our elevation is over 3000 ft. While a pretty walk, I would have preferred doing it in early morning, as now the only active birds are a few Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters. Shari doesn’t want to camp here without electricity since temperatures are likely to drop near freezing, so we head back to Stanthorpe for the evening at a commercial campground.
(Bert) Our heat-pump heater couldn’t keep up with the drop in temperatures and it was a chilly early morning in bed. Stanthorpe holds the Queensland record for coldest temperatures and when I look outside I see the grass covered with frost.
We attend the Anglican Parish of Stanthorpe and barely get out a half sentence in our Midwestern U.S. accent when the greeter asks, “Where do you come from?” Answering, “U.S.A., Texas” immediately gets the greeter to call over the pastor to meet their guests. When the pastor begins the service he extends a special greeting to us and when “exchanging the peace” many others come over to greet us. Upon hearing Texas, one lady, two rows ahead of us, says she is from Texas too. I quickly find out she means Texas, Queensland, and I recall seeing the sign pointing to the town. Later we talk more and she says me her first husband was an Anglican pastor in Texas at the time the Lyndon Baines Johnson visited Australia and came to church services in Texas. She even has his autograph.
Early in the service we read in unison the psalm for the day, Psalm 87, which appropriately for us visitors says, “When the Lord draws up the record of the nations, he shall take note where everyone was born and the singers and the dancers together shall make their song to your name”. So, together, we Americans sang with the Australians.
(Shari) All I said was “Good morning” and the lady wearing a mink hat and short coat knows immediately that I was a visitor to the Anglican Church and she knew I was not from Australia. She is so enthralled to have an American visitor among their few parishioners that she has to tell everyone around her. As we have mentioned many times on our travels, the Anglican Church is in decline in Canada, though not in Belize. The Canadian churches have few in attendance for a Sunday worship service and so is the case here. What a shame! Where are the young people (we are the youngest in attendance)? The church edifice is beautiful; probably built in the 50s. It is modern, has clean lines, and can hold at least four times the 50 occupying today’s pews. We are somewhat of a celebrity as we are introduced by the rector at the beginning of the service. After the service, people want to know where we are from, how long we are staying and would we join them for tea. The ladies in the kitchen we are told even want to make us sandwiches and pack us cookies to take with us on our travels. If all visitors were treated as warmly as we were, I expect the congregation would grow, at least a little bit. They still will have to do something with the extremely liturgical service, unsingable hymns for visitors and lack of a service outline to know what to do next. The message is good, relating how important a relationship to a father is in our lives, later extrapolated to our heavenly Father. Alas, we cannot stay longer to visit the wineries and read the book that one of the ladies’ husbands wrote about the area. We must travel on and return to our route. We drive back to our Brisbane campground in order to make a road log from it to a birding stop and our next campground.
(Bert) After services we leave the tablelands and descend to the sea. We pass through Main Range National Park and in the grasslands I see perched and hovering Nankeen Kestrels. We stop at Aratula when Shari spies a fruit and vegetable outlet and while she is picking through the produce I take note of the birds at the roadside. A small flock of honeycreepers gives me pause as there are some many species that it takes me awhile to sort them out. These turn out to be White-throated Honeycreepers. A boisterous flock of parrots is high in another tree and I first assume they are more Rainbow Lorikeets which are so common here. They are different, though, and I add Scaly-breasted Lorikeet to my list.
We continue on past Brisbane to the coast and as we enter Redcliffe I see two kangaroos in the middle of a soccer field in the middle of a residential district. A sign tells us to watch out for Koalas and kangaroos and report any injuries. Redcliffe becomes so congested with holiday visitors–school is out for a brief break–that I really cannot check out the birding possibilities. We continue on to Moreton Bay Boat Club, though with little improvement in congestion. I guess we will cross this one out as a birding stop for the caravan. There are better choices.
(Shari) We get to the birding site, which according to Bert is a washout, and plan to stop for the night–it is now 4 PM–at a nearby campground. Upon arriving, we find there is no room in the inn and the lady behind the desk offers no solutions for us. She is also unwilling to call the other campground in town, but her husband says it is full. “Drive north”, she says. I look in all our books and find a rest area behind a gas station and a tourist park about 15 km north. We miss the rest area but eventually after passing the exit and returning, find the campground. It is a trailer park, the office is closed, and no available spots are visible as we drive through it. By now I am extremely crabby, it has been dark for an hour already, so we park on the side of the road behind an abandoned semitrailer. I hope we do not become a victim of a crime tonight. I must say, the price is right.
(Bert) I am awakened by the continuous chorus of birds calling from outside our RV. While Shari continues sleeping I walk along the tree-lined road where we parked for the night near Caboolture. A black-and-white bird wags its tail, sideways, not up and down. It is a long tail and the motion is continuous, giving the aura of a cheerful disposition. I learn its cute name, Willy Wagtail, and read that it is one of the most widespread and the most well known birds in Australia.
On the drive north on Bruce Highway I again see three Red-tailed Black Cockatoos flying together. I saw one a few days ago at Main Range National Park and although it is a life bird and my view was short, it is unmistakable as a very large black parrot, so large in fact that its wing beat is the pace of an eagle, slow enough to be called funereal in one of bird books.
After birding at several stops in Great Sandy National Park, I park the RV at the end of a peninsula, just short of its transformation into 6-inch ruts in soft sand. Shari stays in the RV and I walk the road as it passes through coastal forest, stopping when I hear rustling leaves. Buttonquail! It’s something I always wanted to find in the wild, ever since I tried to keep some in my aviary. When we had our last house in the 1990s it had a large aviary just outside sliding glass doors on my study. I tried to raise a variety of birds and buttonquail was my quickest failures, as the tiny birds kept falling into the pool below the waterfall and drowning. After that I stuck to doves which lived happily for years. Now, I try to get a photo of the buttonquail. Shyly, they constantly scurry for cover whenever I approach and even if I walk around them, they find another way to hide, always limiting their exposure to an eye or a fluff of feathers.
(Shari) Since I did not write a journal yesterday, I bet you readers thought I have been victimized on the dark nighttime stop on the side of the road. I am happy to tell you that it was quiet until about 4 AM, when six cars passed in one direction, probably coming home from work to the trailer park near by, and again as many passing in the other direction, presumably going to work. We departed early and arrived early, enabling us to check out more bird sites: some are busts and some are not. Yesterday, checking into our campground, I again am greeted with a surly attendant, this time the owner. She has what I call the “burned-out syndrome”, a disease I contracted in the later years of our ComputerLand store and a malady many owners contract before they can get out of their business. In any case, this is four out of six crabby people I have run into at the campgrounds. It is certainly not like New Zealand, where everybody was happy to see us. Other people here however have been wonderful. I think it is the school holidays and the campgrounds are overloaded. The schools in Australia are open all year round with two week breaks every three months. Since the states alternate their breaks, the school break time goes on a long time. They tell me that October and November will be nicely quiet for us. That is a good thing because we will have the dolphin feeding to ourselves.
I told Bert, this was a must activity for me and that I was going to go, even if he was not. That would have been cute, since as of this time I had not yet driven the RV. Anyway, I get up at 6:30 to be able to get to the boat dock before the dolphins arrive. Volunteers have been feeding a family of dolphins since the mid 50s. The original parents of the now attending dolphins have since passed away, but they have taught their children to come in. In 2003, one of the dolphins was attached by a shark and made its way to the dock where volunteers nursed it back to health 24/7 for 10 days. That same dolphin was here today along with his sister. Most days the dolphins come in between 7:30 and 8:00. Today they arrive at 7:55. Sometimes, there are six but today we saw two. Swimming to within 2 ft. of shore–they would come in closer, but the water is too shallow–they stop next to one of the volunteers, waiting to get their 80 free fish apiece. This is about 3 kg (7 lb.) of their daily 30 kg of food needed to sustain them each day. It is highly regulated by the volunteers, and anyone feeding a dolphin must dip their hands in a sterilizing solution so as not to transmit any disease to the animal. A few years back, an autopsy was done on a dead dolphin and it showed it succumbed to human pneumonia. Kids on school break line up five deep to see and feed the dolphins. After I take my pictures, I leave my front row space that I saved for 45 min. and head to the open air restaurant for breakfast. The omelet I order is dry and if I go back to that I place, I will order just plain bacon and eggs. It is hard to mess that up eggs, right? We dilly dally around town on the bird walk and at the library getting E-mail, so that we never make it to our planned stop for the night. This time we quit early and stay at a caravan park. Here we can do computer work and I can shower and just relax. Before I stop writing though, I must tell you about my driving experience. I have not lost my touch driving a manual transmission and got the RV from the gas pump to a parking spot at the station without choking the engine. Of course I never had to shift from first gear. That will be lesson two. When Bert came back from paying, he wanted to know how the RV got over here. “It levitated,” I said.
(Bert) While Shari gets great close-up views of the dolphins, my view is of a crowd of people standing at the shoreline starring at something unseen in the water. I give up trying to take photos and instead watch a pair of Black Kites carrying branches to an inland nest. After a disappointing breakfast of tasteless omelets and dry toast, we drive along the esplanade and I stop several times to walk. Maybe a few more birds will cheer me up.
On the mudflats, just beyond the wooded shoreline, I see a moving mass of tiny bodies. Binoculars show me they are hundreds of crabs moving as an amoebic mass. I see more such masses and when Shari arrives she points out that the tiny crabs are scattered by the millions–she says gazillions–across the expansive mudflats. In the park in a grassy area I photograph an obliging Australian Wood Duck and then see a pair of Rainbow Lorikeets in good camera distance. I follow them to the trees and then get my best ever photographs of these kaleidoscopes of colors. Can you believe it: these birds display green, yellow-green, yellow, turquoise blue and red in broad splashes. This could very well be my favorite bird of all time.
(Bert) The past few days we have been passing through a broad flat plain of pine forests, mostly groomed in neat rows for timber extraction. Today our passage is along gently rolling golden grasslands generously peppered with tall trees and a distant horizon of low purple hills. Bird life is sparse, or at least so at 100 kph which I attain through long straight stretches passing almost no establishments and only a few towns. At Boyne River we stop long enough for me to identify a flock of soaring Black Kites and thereafter I see scattered kites for the next 100 miles. The large dark kites cut a distinctive profile against the bright blue sky: long forked tails, lanky wings arched like modern mechanical bows with the grip matching the small head.
We enter a mining area and long strings of identical railroad cars each heaped with black coal roll toward us, opposing equally long chains of empty cars moving antiparallel. We stop at a geologic site where visitors can mine for geode like nodules called thundereggs. I’m sure Shari will say more about that. My attention is distracted by a flock of finches visiting a concrete waterhole. The petite Double-banded Finches are very attractive in white plumage offset by two distinctive black bands and polka-dot wings. They stand on the edge of the concrete bath, then suddenly drop down, dip into the water and immediately flutter out again to the concrete to shake off their feathers. They are joined by a Peaceful Dove, a Silvereye and a pair of White-throated Honeyeaters.
(Shari) “Here we go a fossicking, a fossicking we go”. What is that you ask? Smart Bert did not even know and I had to explain to him that this was another thing me, myself and I wanted to see and do. So we make the 20-mi. detour to the place I read about. We are given a tour of an open mine and then told we could fossick as long as we wanted. I could not tell one rock from another so when I would pick up what I thought was a thunderegg I was told it was only a rock. Even with instruction, I could not tell the difference from rocks and thundereggs. Thundereggs are special rocks that when cut open, have beautiful patterns from the minerals deposited within. Different from a geode, a thunderegg is formed while liquid lava from a volcano solidifies and escaping steam creates holes, later allowing minerals to crystallize within the holes. I know, I know, I did not get it either and you just have to see it. When sawed open, the thunderegg has varying colors and shapes and is quite pretty when polished. I come back with about 8 different thundereggs that the guide found for me. There goes my weight baggage limit on my return home. I just have to find a way to ship some of this stuff. So this little detour cost us some time and we are camped at a not-very-impressive campground in Rockhampton. All of the Australian campgrounds we have been in so far cater to what I call “permanents”. These are people who either live here all year round or stay for extended periods. The camps then have sections set aside for transients like us. When caring for my father in Wisconsin, we stayed at two parks like that during long summers. The weather has finally gotten warmer because we are farther north (sounds backwards doesn’t it?). Anyway, I am into crop pants and short sleeve shirts and now wearing the fancy sandals I bought for the trip.
(Bert) A change in scenery again, we travel north and closer to the Pacific Ocean. The grasslands are browner, flatter and the horizon dissolves to the east without upriser. Most of the time the trees are fewer and I keep hoping to see a kangaroo bouncing through the tall grass, but find none. When trees cluster near the highway, signs inform us we are passing through koala country and we scan eucalyptus without seeing any suspects. The scenery becomes repetitive until we near our stopping point at Eungella National Park. Suddenly the flat, straight road resurrects as an extremely steep, sharply winding, narrow passageway. To make it more difficult, we enter dense fog, much like a cloud forest as we rapidly ascend the mountain. When we reach the campground we can barely read the signs, so we park and walk to find a site. I can hardly wait until morning to see our view from the promontory where we park, that is, if the fog lifts.
(Bert) Mythical mountains float on fluffy white clouds illuminated by a pink horizon. Minutes later the clouds separate to reveal a green valley deep below and we discover our campsite is pitched at the edge of a steep drop off. We pack up early and drive to a park while the morning is still young. On a platform reaching over the edge of a dark river we wait to see platypuses. We see turtles with muddy-looking backs floating mostly submerged, though beady eyes on an oval head break the surface. Shari grows impatient, thinking that the people that just left the deck may have been the last to see a platypus and we are too late. I see concentric rings and tiny bubbles and whisper, “Over there, below the branches!” We get only a brief glimpse of a smaller-than-expected platypus mostly hidden and then disappearing below. It returns and, in time, moves in our direction, continuing its feeding behavior until now it is periodically in full view, if only briefly between dives. Shari spots a second one, a larger one, in mid stream. I try for photos, but have to try many times for a satisfactory shot as the water above and around the platypus reflectively silvers into swirls and rings and only reveals the strange animal’s outline. They move closer, into better lighting, and we can see the beady black eyes in deep sockets, the broad duck bill with two close-set nostril holes, the sleek wet brown fur, the webbed feet propelling its motion, and then the beavertail, broad and powerful. I can see long curved claws on its hind feet, but am not sure I can make out its venomous spur. It somersaults forward, leaving only concentric rings.
I gave a talk once on platypuses, so I know what it is doing now under the surface. Equipped with fine, sensitive electroreceptors on its bill, it can detect the tiny electrical impulses made by underwater creatures. After locating its prey, it digs up the mud with its bill to grasp them, crushing the creatures between grinding plates in its bill. What it eats are aquatic insect larvae, freshwater shrimp, annelid worms, yabbies and crayfish. Any muscular movement of these living animals creates small electrical currents, much like our beating heart generates electricity that can be tracked by electrocardiogram machines. Sharks sense prey the same way these platypuses do.
The commotion stirred up by the platypus is of interest to kingfishers as well. To my delight an Azure Kingfisher lands on a branch just below me, watching the platypus at the surface. My camera captures its intensely azure back, white collar, burnt orange breast and belly, bright red-orange feet and its sword like black bill equally as long as its head width. Now I get my best pictures of the platypus as well and after an hour of viewing I decide to explore other parts of the park.
(Shari) Poor Bert, he cannot decide if he should focus his camera on the Azure Kingfisher that may fly away or the secretive platypus that is seen only in Australia and only in a few places. The kingfisher wins since he has bunches of platypus pictures already. Yesterday we arrived in fog and barely could see the directions to the campground, the cloud was so thick. And it was only 4 in the afternoon. This morning when I got up the fog had lifted above us, but still blanketed the valley below. Quite an eerie sight at 6 in the morning!
Yes, another early day for Shari, if she wants to see the platypus. We drive to the viewing area and two people are already departing when we arrive. No platypus now, but the couple show us a great photo shot he got of them swimming. Wouldn’t it be our luck to miss them? They regularly show up here early in the morning and late in the afternoon. I read the informational sign and learn how to spot them by the pattern of ripples they make in the water. And sure enough, not long after reading it, I see a small one no bigger than 12 in. All told, I see three: two babies and an adult. The babies give us a good show, diving and resurfacing, but the adult is in the middle of the river and only swims submerged past us. They look kind of like beaver with their flat tails. Their heads on the other hand have spoon-shaped bills like big ducks, for scooping up their food. They are mammals, but lay eggs. A strange duck indeed!
Bert talks to some fellas about places to bird, before we head down the 12% wiggly mountain road. We are going “off route” again to visit Cape Hillsborough, and May directs us on a road that is single lane in many spots. When we come across an approaching car, to pass each other we must pull over on the dirt shoulder and they do the same. I understand this type of road is common in areas of Australia that gets little traffic. Sure saves on asphalt costs! The drive is beautiful, mostly flat with fields of sugar cane interspersed with tropical forests. Upon arrival at Cape Hillsborough, we dump our stinky tank, park our RV and then walk the wide expanse of beach at low tide. “Here is my first Australian seashell”, I show Bert. It looks just like one I pick up in Texas all the time. The sand is covered with round balls the size of peas. When I squash them with my feet, I learn that the balls are made of sand. The wind must whip the sand and push it inland. As one grain rolls, it must pick up another and another, until it is pea sized and shaped. The beach is covered with them. Tonight we are going to the tables set out at the reservation office for fish and chips (fries). Each costs $4 and so far that is a bargain, here down under. From two weeks of buying groceries, I think food prices are 33% more than at home. Some things are less but not many. I have learned to get my produce at the many fruit stands along the roadside. We must pass at least one a day. Everything there is cheaper than the big grocery stores and very fresh.
(Shari) As I raise the blinds on my big back window, what to my eyes should appear but two kangaroos with children so near. Hopping along the beach path not 20 ft. from our RV, the kangaroos are chased by kids, each trying to pet them. The kangaroos stop. The children stop. The kangaroos run. The children run. Some kids hop like a kangaroo. By the time I put on my shoes and find my camera, they are all gone. Not too much later, I hear kids calling their parents that the kangaroos are on the beach. This time I do not miss the Kodak moment and snap pictures of the kids petting the animals, only wishing the kids could be my own grand kids.
I find today’s drive boring: more of the same flat land with field after field of sugar cane and very few towns to break the monotony. Mostly the road has RVs and trucks. This is winter vacationland for Aussie’s and they come in their campers. I will be glad when these school holidays are over. I think two more weeks. Later in the day we stop short of our planned destination, since we hear that the town has a massive car race and all the campgrounds are booked. We luck out and find an RV park with a lake and at least 50 wallabies all over the place. Now you ask, “What is a wallaby?” To me it looks smaller than a kangaroo, but bigger than a pademelon. These little darlings are gray as were the kangaroos I have seen. Tomorrow we will be visiting a place that should be able to explain the difference to me. Bert is off birding and I am sitting in air conditioned comfort; the first day we really need the A/C.
(Bert) Silhouetted against a silver horizon not yet radiated by a rising sun, the hunched shapes of a pair of kangaroos move slowly along the narrow volcanic rock causeway connecting mainland to island outcropping. I walk across the campground, past sleeping families on holiday, and photograph a wallaby tolerant of a camper passing within a few feet as he heads to the showers, then see a kangaroo attracted to an elderly couple sitting outside for morning tea. I come to a gravel road leading into the forest.
A rush of flight feathers ruffles the air deep within the forest, followed by fowl mutterings. I think brush-turkey since they are so common here and elsewhere, though I am surprised that they would take flight when running is their most common escape. It isn’t until a half-hour later when I hear leaf rustling that I discover their true identity. The pair’s bright orange legs glow in the forest darkness as if they were illuminated. The outline of dark chicken-like bodies barely can be discerned, though the odd crest at the back of their heads is obvious. In my book I quickly identify them as Orange-footed Scrubfowl and it tells me of the disappearing population in this area of Queensland, a valued find indeed.
I bird for a couple of hours, returning at 9 AM to find Shari ready to leave. Driving today is past more sugar cane fields, the third day in a row. Unlike Belize, here the harvesting process is mechanized, the fields are not burned, workers do not hack stalks at the base and all cutting, chopping, loading and transport is with specialized machines. Stopping for fresh seafood, we learn from the proprietor that a car rally in Townsville has caused all campgrounds to fill. We stop soon thereafter when we see a campground sign and on the entrance road find wallabies. Not just one or two, but dozens. I can tell this is going to be a good campground!
After we are parked I begin birding. Campground owner Fred sees me aim my camera at a Peaceful Dove and notes my interest. He tells me about a pair of nesting curlews. This surprises me as I thought all curlews were only migrants to Australia, breeding in Asia and North America. He says he knows where they spend their days and nights and offers to lead me to the spot. Under the spreading trees we look, but neither of us can find them. Fred says they are quiet and easily missed, but is convinced they are nearby. Fred leaves, I stay, circling the area until I discover the pair right under the tree where we began our search. But, they are not curlews! They are stone-curlews–with a hyphen–and Bush Stone-curlews to be precise and are not closely related to true curlews. I find many other species at this birder’s paradise, though these are the best.
(Bert) Soon after the sun rises I step outside and notice wallabies surround the camping area. I rotate in one spot and count 40 wallabies intently watching me watch them. They are curious like deer, assuming a freezing stance, then quickly leaping out of range if I venture too close. My Australian mammal book tells me they are Agile Wallabies. They look much like kangaroos, but half-height and a more dog-shaped head than the longer head of kangaroos and a black line connecting the eye to the nose.
I hike into Bowling Green Bay National Park, finding many of the same species as yesterday afternoon, e.g., Figbird, Gray Fantail, Satin Flycatcher, Spangled Drongo, plus some new ones: Rufous Fantail, Rufous Whistler, Yellow-faced Honeycreeper and Varied Triller. Just as I am finishing up, a Willie Wagtail wheezes past my head and immediately comes to rest on a nest just two feet from my head. I am so close I have to back up to get a focused photo of it resting on a teacup-sized mud nest, fashioned like gray pottery and reminding me of the tight nests of hummingbirds. The adult sits on the nest, covering two or three nearly featherless nestlings and comes and goes with food eagerly grabbed by their voracious appetites. It even stops at my feet and I have to aim my camera straight down to get a photo.
(Shari) While sipping morning tea–Bert is birding–I watch about a dozen wallabies nibble their breakfast of grass. A kangaroo hops into the pack, soon loses interest and hops away. Later I drive out of the park, this time shifting all the way into second gear. A mile later, Bert takes over when we reach the highway.
We stop at a place where we learn about koalas and wombats. We all know about the koalas, but the wombat is a cutie animal too, just not as well known. Still, it is the koala that fascinates me. Born no more than an inch long, it immediately has to make its way to mommy’s pouch. Mommy doesn’t help and 75% of newborns never get there. Those that do survive live in darkness and drink milk until it is time for their digestive system to get the bacteria needed to digest eucalyptus leaves. They get this bacteria from (this is gross) mommy’s poop. She has diarrhea for 6 weeks and the baby just has to eat it. (I told you it was gross). After that the baby is now ready to eat on its own, having a diet of only eucalyptus leaves. Koalas have no predators, since they taste like eucalyptus and no self respecting animal likes that taste. Nevertheless they are threatened to extinction because dogs chase and kill them, cars hit them and the declining amounts of eucalyptus trees. When digested, eucalyptus gives a koala about as much energy as lettuce would to us, hence the koalas move slowly and as infrequently as possible, preferring to sleep 20 hours a day. A natural death to a koala is one of starvation, since their teeth wear out and they can no longer chew the tough leaves and so they stop eating.
Later in the afternoon, we visit another birding site. This one reminds me of Anahuac wildlife refuge in Texas which has a gravel road along the edges of a wetland. Since few cars are on the access road, I offer to drive again. I decide this campervan has too many gears. I would already be driving the main roads if I did not have to shift six times to get up to cruising speed. I only make it to third today. Oops! Fourth by mistake, MANY TIMES. Straight up is first. Straight down is second, but really it is down and to the left. When I think I am aiming the gearshift straight down I usually end up in fourth and then the engine chokes out. And then Bert laughs. Then third gear is back up and a little to the right and so on. Who knows what will happen when I get to sixth gear. By the time we reach the road end to the birding area, I am shifting nicely from first to second to third. At least I think so!
Tonight’s camp is shared with about 40 others. Australia allows overnight camping in certain rest areas. Since we know campgrounds are booked in town and surrounding areas, owing to this big car race, we decide to stop at the rest area outside of town. We park next to the second Australian we have met who came from Germany in the 1950s. We talk about his politics, road conditions, etc. He gives us some wire to hold up our exhaust pipe. I discovered that it is the source of much of the rattles and thumps we hear as we drive. We will get it properly repaired in a few days.
(Shari) Why do these birds always have to live up the mountain? When Bert laid out the route I read that getting to this spot was up a twisty road. Last night I asked our German neighbors about the road conditions and they said it was not suitable for campervans. This morning we ask again at the fuel station at the bottom of the mountain; one person doesn’t know but suspects not, and the other says it is doable. So we take it! Well, it is a piece of cake, compared to the road we took to Lamington National Park. It is like asking people about the Cassier Highway in British Columbia going to Alaska. Some people think it is just horrible, yet we have taken it five times and find it just fine if you travel slowly. Today’s road is 18 km (11 mi.) uphill and it took us 45 min. to reach the summit. On the way home we met four cars and one large truck that we passed without difficulty. Once we arrived at the summit at 2925 ft., we do our thing: check out birding sites. I will let Bert tell you about his find. I lack patience and after the half-mile rainforest walk with absolutely no activity, I go back to “my house” and write journals. Seems I can only do one task per day: write journals, log expenses or construct road logs from my notes. If we have wash to do or come home late, I really get behind.
(Bert) Lush plant life, including tree ferns, clusters densely under very tall straight-trunked trees, many buttressed to support their height. Humidity is higher and everything is greener here in the wet tropical rainforest, unlike the crispness and dull green-gray look of the dry rainforest we have visited up until today. Exotic-sounding bird calls reverberate through the forest. One oft repeated call begs us to find its owner. It starts with a thin monotone whistle and then explodes loudly like a rifle shot. I think riflebird, particularly Victoria’s Riflebird, but the book’s description does not match. We hear the call all morning, but never get close enough to see the bird. Later, after talking to another birder and consulting my book, I learn that the bird is an Eastern Whipbird and what sounded like a rifle shot to us could also be described as a whip-crack. This is the bird I saw at Lamington July 2 and wondered how it got its name. Now I know.
I am reading a poster sign when I hear leaf rustling at the edge of the forest. I slowly walk in that direction and after a few minutes I see several bodies tossing up leaves and digging in the soft dirt below. I get closer and see white breasts on black bodies, quickly recognizing Chowchilla, one on the short list of Australian birds I really wanted to see. The range of this species is so small it looks like a red thumbtack on a poster-sized Australian map. I get fairly close to the birds and they seem intent to go about their earth-moving business, ignoring my presence.
I expect this to be the highlight of my birding day, yet about midday I chance upon a black crow-like bird with a very short squared tail when it flies above me in dense dark forest, landing in a nearly impossible viewing spot. Between the leaves and branches I can make out iridescent purple and a curved bill. It’s a Victoria’s Riflebird, one of the few Bird-of-Paradise species outside of New Guinea. About a half hour later I find another one and I enjoy one of those truly rare bird experiences. Very high in the fork of a tall tree, the male riflebird arches its wings forward and above, forming almost a complete circle and centered in the donut hole I see its iridescent head, yellow mouth lining and curved bill. It maintains this sex-attracting pose as I click a series of flash photos, using my Fresnel lens to throw the light the required long distance. Just then my batteries die for my flash attachment and I have to resort to setting my camera at 5000 ISO. I get photos, but not showing the true beauty of the experience. On the return hike I almost ignore other birds as I am so excited about what I’ve just witnessed that I keep rerunning the sighting in my mind.
(Bert) We stop at a wetlands and just after I gather my birding gear, hang binoculars around my neck and strap camera over shoulder, put notebook in pocket, shove accessories in more pockets and head out the door the light rain turns into a downpour. Guess we will visit this spot another day. We continue on to Mission Beach to a campsite only a short walk from a broad sandy beach stretching along a calm, peacock blue sea with Dunk Island in the distance. Finally having Internet connections after a long absence, I send out multiple journals and many e-mails, then respond to a few of the 250 I receive.
(Bert) A short dark man with a blue hat is walking in the grassy border of the road. Suddenly I change my mind and exclaim, “Cassowary”. I pull to the roadside and with binoculars and camera ready we watch the Southern Cassowary saunter slowly in our direction. By far the largest of all Australian forest animals, this flightless bird is related to ostriches and emus. Finely feathered black, it looks like a moving haystack on legs, but for its red and blue neck sticking out like a teakettle spout. On its blue head it wears a tall crown, called a casque, that looks like it would be hard bone but is actually spongy. I’ve read that the casque acts as a bumper against branches and hanging vines as the cassowary thrashes head down through the rainforest. This one moves past our RV so closely my camera long-lens shots are reduced to its head and neck only. Because of reduced habitat, cassowaries are hard to find and even here at Mission Beach, the stronghold of existing cassowaries, their numbers are estimated to be only about 50. Signs everywhere along Mission Beach roads warn drivers to slow down for cassowaries, yet 14 have been killed by fast drivers already this year and a local birder tells me that 49 birds were reported killed on the roads after the cyclone in 2006.
We drive to another beachside campsite many miles from where we stayed. We want to check it out as a potential site for our October tour, especially because cassowaries are regular there. Just as I turn into the entrance road I see a man with a camera stalking a cassowary on the beach. I park and we return for photos. Seemingly oblivious to us and with no rush in mind, the cassowary plods across the sandy beach and heads toward overhanging mangroves. It leaves unusual sand prints: three toes forward, none back, lined up in a straight line without lateral displacement.
Hours later I hike along a rainforest trail deeply and densely enveloped in tall trees and hanging Tarzan vines, passing along a trickling freshwater stream. Signs tell details about cassowaries, informing me that finding a cassowary is a rare experience and I would be lucky to find one, though suggesting I might find its dung as illustrated on the sign. They sure were right about the dung as the pathway has many piles that include undigested blue seeds and many walnut-shaped seeds that seemed to have passed through intact. No cassowaries though now. Two in one day is good enough for me!
(Shari) When only 50 such birds are in existence at Mission Beach, what is the probability we would see two and on the same day? Well, we do. The first one is on the side of the road as we leave for our scouting trip this morning. The second is on the beach near the campground we are checking out. On our way into Mission Beach yesterday morning we saw many signs warning that this was a cassowary zone: “Look out for cassowaries”, pictures of cars and cassowaries colliding, “Go Slow” because of cassowaries, etc. Yet we saw no cassowaries. Today we see two. Go figure! Cassowaries are big fluffy birds, about the size of an Emu. Black in color they have a striking blue neck and a red waddle (the thing that hangs down like on a turkey). We get good pictures of the bird and count ourselves lucky.
Finishing our inspection tasks early, we stay put in the campground: I working on road logs and Bert sorting pictures. Not like last night, when we ate at the campground take out, tonight we eat in and have Mongolian stir fry. I find I am repeating menus; stir fry, burgers, Italian sausages, lamb chops, pan fried fish or shrimp and spaghetti. Menus always have to be easy, with few ingredients or ones that I can buy pre-made. Tonight’s Mongolian sauce comes from a package. All I have to do is stir fry some veggies and sliced chicken and then add the sauce. Pour over rice and we have dinner.
(Bert) More sugarcane fields border the highway, now intermixed with banana plantations and a few papaya orchards. We turn inland from the coast and begin a gradual ascent into the Misty Mountains. Can you think of a single word with six “o” letters? On the uphill climb we pass through Wooroonooran National Park. My spellchecker doesn’t believe it either. At the top we stop for lunch at a dairy farm, which I’m sure Shari will describe, she being the food critic in the family. After the delicious lunch I watch aerial performances of White-breasted Woodswallows and photograph a few sitting on fence posts where the cows gather in the barnyard. Our campsite is muddy and wet after many days of out-of-season rains, though we had sunny skies the last few days along the coast.
(Shari) “We just have to check it out”, I tell Bert. How will we know if we
should recommend the restaurant? I smile to myself. Life is tough, I facetiously
think to myself as we make our way off the highway, down a one-lane road, to the
dairy tea house. When our order arrives, it is neatly arranged on a huge plate
with a smaller plate of their famous bread; the food is ample for the two of us.
Assorted cheeses and spreads, sauces and meats, we graze for 30 min. Certainly,
a place well worth the trip! Looking at the selections of the other diners in
the place, I think next time I will order soup or salad and ice cream. All the
dairy products are organic and the tea house was the original farm house until
just a few years ago. Along our drive I tell Bert not to count me in on the
birding trips in October. I see too many other places I want to visit; like a
tea factory, a coffee/chocolate house, distillery, caves and a dairy museum.
Only problem I see so far is that I have to learn how to drive. Yesterday, I
drove a while on a real road and made it all the way into fifth gear before we
hit the main highway where I let Bert take over. I plan on really practicing
when I no longer have to write down every turn in the road, every location of
interest, and every fuel stop and rest area. Bert could never do that while I
drove, since he would bird and miss writing down a turn. Even after lunch, he
takes pictures of some bird while I do not fail to mention that he should be
glad that I forced him to stop here.
(Shari) We are to meet our guide at a tea room near our camp. What a pleasant surprise when I see that the tea room is built on the side of a lake and the weather is warm enough to sit on the veranda as we eat breakfast and sip mochaccino. I have to laugh as the guide interrupts his very interesting stories at the sight of any bird flying by. I tell him I am not a birder and he says that is all right. It does not dampen his enthusiasm for pointing out birds, however, and I am shown a variety of flying feathers, whether I want to see them or not. What should take an hour, takes us all morning to accomplish. But we settle on what days we want him, where we are to go and logistics of moving a group from point A to point B. I told Bert yesterday not to count me in on birding trips, but the guide gets me excited about the mammals we will see. I just have to decide whether I want to subject my old body to the grueling hours of a true birder and suffer the boring parts of the day, when people ponder the feathers of a bird and try to decipher if it is a rose-breasted or rose-throated peep. I guess I could bring a book and sleep on the bus. We get such a late start that we only travel 50 km before stopping. Bert wanted to visit a big tree and I wanted to see the chocolate factory, yet we see neither. Maybe I can convince him to backtrack for the chocolate factory tomorrow! I bet not! Anyway, after we checked out another campground, it was just plain late. The campground we booked in October has a great location but has no dump point. With the small black water holding tank these campervans have, I just do not think we can last four days. So we look for alternatives. Boy do we find a great one. It not only has a dump point, but has an open air palapa for a cookout and a beautiful swimming pool to use for cooling off. The bathrooms are spacious and clean and the grounds are manicured. So we are set. On advice from the guide, we spend the day tweaking the schedule and slightly changing the route. I’ve heard the area we are in right now supposedly has half the total species of birds in Australia. It also has things a regular caravan would like to do. Choices, choices! I mentioned some of them yesterday. I am not as young as I used to be and don’t think I can burn the candle at both ends. I will just have to make choices.
(Bert) Filling in the blanks Shari left, our guide interrupted our conversation to point out a Dusky Honeyeater feeding on flowers right in front of us, a large raft of Great Crested Grebes in the middle of the small lake, one of many Pacific Black Ducks feeding near the boat dock, a big flock of Topknot Pigeons flying over the lake, plus two butterfly species I fail to recall.
(Shari) We did not intend to go to the rodeo, though we kind of fell into attendance anyway. The Mareeba campground I picked on the Internet while in the United States, just will never do. After asking one of our contacts here in Mareeba, he suggested we try the rodeo grounds. So here we are, explaining that we are not here to see the rodeo like the thousands of other people pouring into the parking lot. The parking attendant actually believes us and lets us pass. Of course the office is way on the other side of the fair grounds and so we see a lot of the rodeo anyway. I would call it more of a county fair rodeo myself. The office assures us that it will not be crowded in October and shows us where to go. It will be much better for us and kind of an adventure. Location, location, location! It is only 10 km from our night time birding activity and therefore not very far to drive in the darkness. Since we are closer to the equator than Texas, darkness here in October will come about 6:00 PM. I still do not believe it because days should be shorter now and darkness is about 6:00. We will see. We visit two of our planned locations today, making only two more to go. Plus we see a very interesting coffee museum which has thousands of antique coffee makers from around the world and from different time periods. The museum is self guided with individualized radios. I punch in the number attached to a coffee maker I want to learn about and the recorded voice of the collector explains its history. I usually do not like museums but I like this one, especially since we can sample 43 different kinds of coffees, 4 teas, 16 chocolates and 3 liquors. Tonight we are parked near a tiny town called Julatten. We are less than 100 km from the very interesting Tablelands section of Australia but I tell Bert it reminds me of Belize. Not as hot, not as poor, not as buggy, but Belize just the same. Our camp has a jungle feel to it. Strange birds koko, koko, koko in my left ear and squawking ones in my right. Big dead leaves crunch under my feet as I walk to the cement bathroom with a corrugated steel roof. With nothing to do, I get my binos out to watch a bird dip its head in the hibiscus flower next to me. Not a hummingbird but a honeyeater, I surmise. Gee, aren’t you impressed that I got the family right? I know I am. Bert is in heaven and starts to bird immediately after we arrive. I am sure he will tell you about the “find” he saw. Other couples are here too, all for the birding. Tonight they wait on a bench on the river for a platypus but to no avail. The water is too high I hear.
(Bert) After a 45 min. drive on a dusty road where Shari manages to shift smoothly between first, second and third gears, we stop beside a small lake and marsh. Flying over the marsh is a bird that reminds me of an osprey, but a sign post says White-bellied Sea-Eagle occurs on the marsh. What a neat name, although it seems odd that this “sea” bird is so far inland and at high elevation. I photograph the distant bird and it turns out to be an Osprey after all.
Late in the afternoon we head north and reach a campground famous for its birds. Remember the elusive Orange-footed Scrubfowl that were so hard for me to see in the dark woods at Cape Hillsborough? Well, here are two of them busily feeding in a forest with sparse understory and I get dozens of photos and even some video. Later I am shown its mound, a 7-foot-high pile of dirt in dense forest, constructed through generations of toil. Built mostly by the male, it is an accumulation of debris and earth scraped from the forest to a height high enough to attain a fermentation temperature required to incubate the eggs. Females lay up to 15 eggs in the mound and the male adds or removes layers of earth to maintain the necessary temperature (35-38º C). When the eggs hatch, it is up to the chicks to dig their way out of the mound, run into the forest and forage for food on their own.
I’m blessed with another treat from nature in the early evening, just when it is almost too dark to identify birds. The campground owner says he can find a Papuan Frogmouth for us, so we hike in the forest and he pauses periodically to stare half way up to the canopy. If he had told me the bird was within 50 ft. of where I stand and given me an hour to locate it, I doubt I would have found this 2-ft. tall bird. It completely blends in with the trunk and branches and looks very much like a broken limb. While it closely resembles the potoos we often found in Belize, it is not closely related (same order of nightjars, but different family and genus). I take many photos and I hope at least some for them will separate feather from wood.
(Shari) Cairns (pronounced Cans) is not what I expected. If anyone knows of towns in Australia, Cairns is one of them because it is where most of the Great Barrier Reef trips depart. In Australia at this time it is cold in the south, e.g. Melbourne, but it is warm in the north and many people from the south come here to winter (do we call them “Aussie birds” like our “snow birds”?) So the town has the very young taking off on diving and snorkeling trips and the older more mature retired people enjoying the warm weather. The town is larger than I anticipated and the waterfront is all touristy. The street along the waterfront is called The Esplanade and is loaded with one open-air restaurant after another after another with booths hawking snorkel and dive trips in between. Walking along the sidewalk requires weaving in and out of people standing, people talking, people shopping, and people drinking, all talking in different languages, mostly European from Germany, Holland, and Austria, and many Japanese and Asians too. It is a fun place to visit for a few days and we get to be here five. We decide to take the bus from our campground to a Mexican restaurant. Yes, we find Mexican because we must be homesick but it isn’t any good and not a place warranting a return. We also pick it because I found a two-for-one dinner card, which now makes our meal about what we’d pay in the U.S. But NO, I repeat NO, chips and salsa. Anyway, after dinner, we decide to walk the 2.5 mi. back to the campground. Bert interrupts our conversation and wants me to look skyward. So? Just another big black bird! Look at the neat gift shop. He interrupts again and then I see it is not a bird but the biggest bat I have ever seen. I say the size of an eagle but Bert says not that big. Whatever, it is huge. And there are not just one or two but hundreds of them, coming in to roost in the city trees like grackles in Texas. I wish I had my binoculars.
We pass the night market, a fun place much like Mexican markets, though with Aussie merchandise. We buy Bert a knit shirt and I look at stuff for the grandkids but do not buy anything because Bert is a pain in the neck when it comes to shopping. I will wait and go with my friend in October. I think she and I could stay here a week and have a grand time. The walk back is long. When it starts to rain, Bert wants to pick up speed. NO WAY Jose, I tell him. He either walks my speed or calls a cab. We get home a little wet about 60 min. after we left the shopping area.
(Bert) Shari and I comment to each other that Cairns is much larger than we imagined. We take a city bus to the downtown area and walk to a Mexican restaurant Shari read about. We like Mexican food so much and have it so regularly in Texas and Mexico that we need a Mexican fix to satisfy our yearning. I’ll have to call this meal Aus-Mex, though, an Australian accent to a Mexican meal. As we are strolling back through downtown along a mall-like street closed to traffic, past neon lights advertising restaurants, bars and shops and mixing with crowds of people, I see a dark bird flying above the city lights and then I see many more. They remind me of vultures, black against the dark sky, but not quite as large. A few fly over us and I’m struck by the jagged draconian wing outline. It’s not a bird, it’s a bat, a giant bat, or more accurately a flying-fox or megabat in suborder Megachiroptera. Their wingspan can be greater than 3 ft. One lands in the crown of one of the widely spreading shade trees, apparently coming to roost. Then we see dozens more filling the sky like an apocalyptic sign of doom. Maybe they are predicting the light rain that accompanies on our 3.7 km walk back to the campground.
(Shari) Today is a day of errands. Our Kea needs a little loving so we take it in to get the tailpipe put solidly in place, the cabinet door fastened to the wall, the TV and DVD doors calibrated to stay closed, and a new light bulb in one of the sockets. Kea gives us a loaner vehicle and we take off for The Esplanade. Arrangements have to be made for our Barrier Reef trip (gee, I wish they would offer a free trip now for our dry run), our hotel for the first night (gee, I wish they would offer a free night for our dry run) and our welcome dinner restaurant (gee, I wish they would offer a free dinner for our dry run).
I am not leaving Cairns until I get a haircut and when Bert sees a shop, I ask him to stop. It probably is the most expensive haircut I have ever gotten ($45 AUS) but as Bert says, the best one I have had in a long time. Their door is open and when I inquire about getting a haircut, a male stylist says he will do it, even though they are closed. One of the women says I am attracted to the stylists’ sexy legs. Far from it since I bet the stylist does not prefer women. We find a print shop that will print from our computer and bind road logs for us in October. We have a small problem with money needs (we need cash for a vendor who does not accept a credit/debit card) and go to a bank. They tell us they cannot transfer money from the U.S. I do not know how people do it when they have to move here. We set up a way to transfer from Wells Fargo to Capital One while we were in the U.S. Now we are locked out of Capital One online because of a password problem. When we call the number given us, they say it is for credit card only. We need to fund our debit card and only have a U.S. 800 number, which will not work in Australia. They transfer us to that department but after 29 min., we hang up and write an e-mail explaining our dilemma. I may have to ask my daughter to help us out here. Maybe she can get a non-800 number for the bank in Texas. After a cheap, late morning, good breakfast on The Esplanade, we drive home, having accomplished all tasks but one.
(Shari) Last night after spending 45 min. learning how to use the DVD and wishing our grandkids were here to do it for us, we watched a movie called the “The Caller”. I had brought a few DVDs from home and this is the first time that we were not too exhausted to watch one. The movie reminded us of our dating days back in the 60s when we would go see Bergman films, a foreign director that made movies with convoluted plots, deep meanings and lot of character development.
Now, Bert is off birding with one of our guides. Guess what I get to do? The wash! By the time I get over to the laundry (only 8:30) all of the clotheslines are full with clothes drying and only two washers are available to use. I grab them in a hurry and sort dark from light. After washing, no dryers are available, so I scrounge some clothespins off the ground, move others hanging wash to make room for mine and hang laundry out to dry. Machines cost between $3 and $4 per load and dryers cost the same for 30 to 40 min. I have not used laundries in the U.S. for many a year, so do not know how that compares.
(Bert) A city park near where we are camped offers a morning birding walk once a week and I made contact with John, the guide. He picks me up at 8:10 and we meet others at the park. In fact, the group is the second largest he has ever had for this weekly walk. I count 27 people, coming from Melbourne, Cairns, Japan, USA and Czechoslovakia. We walk through many habitats–floral gardens, swamp forest, freshwater lakes, brackish lakes, tidal stream and open grassy areas–so our bird count is high and varied. Many are new to me, including Yellow Oriole, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Yellow-bellied Sunbird, Little Kingfisher, Striated Heron and Large-billed Gerygone. That last species, Gerygone, is a warbler-type bird and I am surprised at the way the name is pronounced: gher igg oh knee.
(Shari) “You know”, I say to Bert, “If you want to go birding on The Esplanade at 3:15 we will just have to eat dinner down there.” He agrees and off we go; he to bird with a fellow he met this morning and me to shop. I find some T-shirts at a wonderful price of three for $25. Maybe they will fall apart in the wash, but I do not think so. I am not so worried about airline weight issues, because we talked to a lady who told us to go to the Australian Post and they could ship (by boat) a box quite cheaply whereas UPS etc. would be quite expensive. We have a nice conversation over a beer with an Australian couple from New South Wales here on holiday. They are on an interesting tour, traveling by 4-wheel-drive bus and sleeping in tents. They are going all the way to the northeast tip of Australia. Our dinner consists of T-bone steak, mashed potatoes, salad and a small glass of beer for only $12 each. Such a deal! We find another restaurant that has different meals for only $10. Maybe we will just have to check that out too. ;)
(Bert) In mid afternoon I meet John again on The Esplanade a few hours before high tide. John introduces me to another John, a regular Cairns birder, who mentions he just saw a Curlew Sandpiper. So John #2 and I walk in its direction. The Esplanade is a delightful strip of grassy park, sand and expansive bathing pool populated by hundreds of sunbathers, mostly attractive young people working on a tan they may regret in later years. A concrete wall separates us from tidal mud flats where the birds have gathered. John points out an Eastern Reef Heron, a bird I remember from Hamilton Island and a Moorea visit long ago, Bar-tailed Godwit which I’ve seen in Alaska and the U.K. and Great Knot, which is new to me. We do not find the sandpiper again and our attention is drawn to the other animals. Several Shovelnose Sharks swim near a flock of gulls. It takes me quite a while to figure out the location John is describing and when I find them I am surprised how small they are and how close they get to the gulls on shore. I see a fish swimming in a narrow channel of water and am surprised when it “swims” right up on to the mud. We see two more do that and John explains they are Giant Mudskippers. It feeds in the mud and needs to return to the water to keep its gills wet. This odd animal illustrates a link between seagoing and land dwelling creatures.
(Bert) We need to make contact with another birding guide and set up the day’s itinerary, so we drive to Kuranda. Not a long distance, though most of it seems to be vertical. Cairns lies on coastal plain and was once a swamp with a sand beach. Looking westward, the land uplifts severely to about 3000 ft. and remains tropical rainforest. A heavily traveled highway serpentines uphill to the Atherton Tablelands and near its northeastern edge is Kuranda. I take a side road that dwindles to gravel edged by tall forest. We park at a small turnaround and walk back to the driveway that is too narrow for our campervan. Deep within the jungle we meet with the owner on her balcony. Trees creep within inches of our view and a bird feeder is attracting such colorful birds I return to the campervan for my camera. A big chubby green bird is one I recognize instantly as it is on my short list of special birds I wanted to see. Associated by name only to our Gray Catbird, it is a Spotted Catbird related to bowerbirds. Also attracted to the fruit tray and especially to bits of cheese is a male Victoria’s Riflebird. Iridescent blues and greens flash when it catches shafts of light. Below us, gathering pits of food Sue dropped over the balcony, is a Musky Rat-kangaroo which looks like a fat reddish Norway Rat. It is the smallest kangaroo with a body length of less than one foot. Over a cup of tea we settle on an agenda for a day in October.
Mid afternoon I walk from our campsite to the coast, a short 20-min. stroll through urban surroundings that opens to the parkland along The Esplanade. At this extremity of The Esplanade, the mudflats converge with remnant mangrove forest. On the mudflats is a colorful shorebird I do not recognize, so I photograph it and eventually deduce it is a Black-fronted Dotterel. Along the edge of the mangroves is two of the species I came here to find, a small flock of Varied Honeyeaters and a single Mangrove Robin. Time is too short to find the others, so under dark skies threatening rain I walk back to camp.
(Shari) “Wet tropics” seems to be a redundant phrase, but that is what they call this section of Australia. It has been designated as a World Heritage site, covering 0.01% of Australia’s surface area. In spite of its small area, it contains over 50% of all Australian bird species, 36% of mammal species, 60% of butterfly species, and 65% of fern species. To me, tropics means muggy, dark, closed in, dense, humid, scary, buggy and hot. Today as we enter it is dark, closed in, dense, humid, scary, but not hot nor buggy. Hurrah for two! I get a real close look at a riflebird on a feeder and a thick-billed green bird that is called a catbird. I also see a rat-kangaroo looking just like a fat rat. As we eat lunch in the camper, I swear the forest closes in on us by 2 ft. and by nightfall we would be covered in thick vines, big leaves and ferns if we stayed. We drive home after lunch and I settle in for computer work, not even venturing out to a restaurant for dinner.
(Shari) This is a Shari day and we take in a tourist attraction; one most awarded in Australia. We start with a railroad trip up the mountain that is rather boring as only two out of eight people–those at the window seats–can see. Besides, we travel through the rainforest that is too thick to see through anyway. We get to the destination and Bert makes a deal with me. If we take the 1 hr. rainforest jungle walk, then he will do the town market route with me. Actually both walks are boring as nothing is happening in the jungle and the shops have the same merchandise as the ones in Cairns. Lunch consists of a bagel sandwich. At 1 PM we head to the sky rail, our mode of transportation down. Now, this is a fantastic trip as it takes us above the rainforest canopy, over gorges and rivers and then opens up to farmland and the city of Cairns in the distance. At the bottom of the sky rail, is the most awarded tourist attraction: the story of a local tribe of aborigines from the beginning of time to the present. Superbly done with a set of five performances, it traces aboriginal history, dance and customs, with lessons in boomerang and spear throwing, didgeridoo playing, and bush foods. I do not have enough time at the last location as our bus is going to leave without me but the gift shop and restaurant needs a walk through. Pooh, I will just have to return another day to finish up!
(Bert) As I write this a half hour before first light the humid coastal air is warm and I have the campervan’s windows open. Outside the wailing of Bush Stone-curlews builds in waves, each higher and more forceful than the previous, until it reaches a crescendo of agonizing grief, when it slowly fades off into silence. Yet the cheerful bright call of Peaceful Dove continues. To me it sounds like a quickly slurred “motorhome” almost jammed into one syllable. I hear lots of cackling and chirping too and I know Figbirds and Magpie-larks are adding to the mix. I haven’t heard the Laughing Kookaburras yet, though when they do call, their boisterous announcement of morning will be the alarm-clock for those still asleep. The night sounds divert me from writing about yesterday’s trip to the tablelands and back.
An historic train spirals uphill in a gradual ascent, sometimes turning upon itself so that the snaked tail can see its head. We pass vistas of waterfalls and overviews of the coastal plain below, though mostly our view shortfalls to the dense wet rainforest. At the top, in Kuranda, Shari and I walk along the river, stopping only for a Sacred Kingfisher and a Rufous Fantail. The tradeoff for Shari walking with me through the forest is that I walk with her through the village markets. Sprawling trees broadly arch over the main street, providing a shading umbrella. Thick strangler fig vines dangle from the branches, forming curtains like stringed bamboo room separators. I take limited interest in the many shops selling souvenirs, except for one open-air shop where a local lady is displaying aborigine art. She sees my interest and starts telling me about the local artists: young men and women, older relatives and friends, one man in prison, another a cousin of a cousin who recently died. Each painting holds a story, usually an aborigine story of birds and animals, of wars, of nature. Paintings are filled to the brim with images side-by-side, space filling and often symmetrical, much in the flavor of an Escher drawing. Colors are vibrant and varied like the birds.
Our down mountain trip is by Skyrail, a closed gondola holding six people, but ours carries only four today, giving us room to twist and turn to a 360º view of the rainforest. Unlike a similar canopy ride in Costa Rica, this one transports us well above the canopy so that we can view a rolling sea of green trees following the contours of the mountains. We spot the river we walked along earlier and then the waterfall I tried to photograph from the train. It is a fascinating perspective of the rainforest, one that could only be duplicated by a low-flying plane or helicopter, although ours is closer yet and silent like a hot air balloon drifting in the wind.
Our final stop is an aborigine attraction where we shuffle from one performance to another, starting with hearing the eerie sounds of the didgeridoo, a hollowed out tree trunk, then traditional dances that replicate native animal movements and hunting, and singing a native song that has a catchy rhythm and beat. We see a demonstration of fire starting with a stick rolled by open palms, creating friction on another wood piece until it ignites dry leaves. It only takes the expert two minutes to get flames. Next we try our luck at throwing a boomerang (I do very well and it returns to me) and throwing a spear with a spear thrower, a device known since stone age for magnifying the force of the throw (I do very poorly and manage to cast the spear and thrower about six feet in front of me). We see and hear a theatrical performance of the aborigine creation story and end the afternoon with a dramatic and depressing historical film of how aborigines were treated when Europeans arrived. It didn’t take much imagination to see how their fate paralleled the American Indian.
(Shari) Hurrah, hurrah! We are done generating road logs. I have only four more to transcribe into the computer. Unfortunately they are the hardest ones because we changed our minds on campgrounds or did the route in three days instead of one and they are in reverse direction. The good news is I can no longer get farther behind on transcribing. Before we leave Cairns we grocery shop. I find kangaroo meat for sale and buy some steaks. I have mixed emotions about eating that meat; like deer, it feels like eating Bambi.
Today we finish the last of the caravan route, doing two days in one but still only covering less than 200 km total: easy days but packed with stuff. It is sort of drizzly today and gloomy so nothing looks inviting. Not even the ritzy town of Port Douglas–where backpackers say you have to be rich to visit–entices me to stay more than an hour. Bert birds the wharf area where huge fancy yachts are docked, while I look in the shops. We are still in the midst of the Wet Tropics, not one of my favorite climates as you probably surmise by now. By 3:30 it feels like dusk, so we stop for the night. Bert birds of course as he loves this habitat. I study maps and The Lonely Planet for information on tomorrow’s drive. We should be getting out of the rainforest and into the savannah then. Hope we see sun. We are headed to Cooktown, a place where Captain Cook landed to do repairs on his ship Endeavor. The town has gotten new life since the road has been recently paved and tourists are finding it an attractive alternative to Cairns and Port Douglas.
(Bert) I join Keith and Lindsay on a spotlighting tour once darkness has enveloped the forest and even in the open areas only starlight provides dim lighting. High in adjacent trees they shine their lights at vacant holes, one where the female had roosted and another for the male. Scanning the trees Keith locates the male and Lindsay finds the three fledged juveniles. Looking back at us are owlish faces, flat facial disks centered by a small bill and offset by small eyes. They closely resemble Common Barn Owl, but different enough for me to see they are a different species. Keith says they are Eastern Barn Owls.
We move toward the buildings where Lindsay knows the location of treefrogs. One is tiny, a White-lipped Treefrog, and it usually resides on a window frame, but this time has moved to the eaves above. Two others are in the bathroom, clinging in an upper corner of the ceiling. They are huge, the size of a kid-size boxing glove. I think Keith called them Red or Desert Treefrogs, but we aren’t anywhere near a desert so maybe I heard incorrectly. In the evening we find more frogs–Peter’s Frog, Northern Sedge Frog, Druggy Frog–these preferring the forest floor. I am anxious to see marsupial mammals and the frogs are just foreplay.
In the distance we hear a Scrubfowl calling. In the dark evening, its melancholy gobble is the antithesis of a rooster’s cheerful sunrise announcement. Later we spotlight one roosting on a tree branch about 15 ft. above us. We move to the river, hoping to spot a platypus. The stream moves slowly past, the flashlight beam bounces off its surface and penetrates below us to reveal Blue Rainbow Fish. We move on and join Lindsay where she has spotlighted a Spectacled Flying-Fox. Just below the crown of the fruit tree, the huge bat is clinging to a branch, hanging upside down with its face gorging on fruit. As we walk to another area, we see two of the bats in flight, looking much like the ones we saw in Cairns, but not as black. Lindsay finds an animal clinging to a tree trunk. The body of the Northern Leaf-tailed Gecko so perfectly blends in with the tree bark that it takes us a while to see its outline. Wow, it’s huge! Head down, tail up, its fat body must stretch nearly a foot. What a strange looking creature!
Finally a mammal, a Long-nosed Bandicoot is nibbling on something in the grass. It runs so quickly into forest cover that all I notice is its long snout. Later we find two more: one remaining at a standstill long enough for me to get binoculars focused on it and the other close enough for a photo. Both run away like Cottontail Rabbits, not the exaggerated hop of kangaroos. We find Bush Stone-curlews prowling the night and hear them calling and then high in a tree find a marsupial Keith says he rarely finds in these parts, a Green Ringtail Possum. I get one photo before it moves behind leaves and I think it is a good shot. Under the bird feeders we find the last mammal of the evening and these three are the tamest of all. The Northern Brown Bandicoots ignore our presence as long as we move slowly and quietly. We can study them to our heart’s content, but it is nearly 9 PM now and I return to our RV for late dinner.
(Bert) I am to bird with Keith and two Brits this morning. The light rain doesn’t look like it will stop, so I wonder if we will go out. I watch the bird feeders while I wait for them to show up and am happy to see a Spotted Catbird come to within 8 ft. of my chair. At 7 AM we step out from under the porch, all of us head to foot in raingear. I am surprised how many birds we are seeing, but then again, this is the rainforest and I am sure the wildlife is accustomed to rain. One of the advantages of birding with a local is their knowledge of bird calls, so Keith identifies a Gray Whistler call, one I should be able to remember since it is sets of 4-5 clear whistled notes, seemingly random, but form a repeating pattern as I concentrate on the sequence. In about two hours of birding I end up with 43 species; Keith gets 10 more of which all but two are heard-only. Noteworthy to me is that of my 43 species only one is new–Black Butcherbird–yet over 30 would have been new to me a month ago.
(Shari) RAINFOREST. What does it do in the RAINforest? It rains, of course. I hear rain droplets all night long and into the morning. Bert leaves early to take a guided walk and as I roll over to go back to sleep, I mumble something about leaving me the keys. I have a leisurely morning and we do not get on the road until after 10. We are taking the Cooktown Developmental Road, finished four years ago. The road is sparsely traveled, mostly with RVs, smooth and wide. It is time for me to drive: no road logs, little traffic, nice wide smooth road. I get on the highway at a roadhouse, reminiscent of roadhouses in Alaska; quaint and in the middle of nowhere providing basic services for the traveler: food, fuel, housing and rest. I drive for about 45 min. at top speed of 100 kph. That means I have to shift through all six gears. Too many gears I think. Three would be plenty. We are now in the real Australian bush and as we leave the rainforest 50 mi. behind us, the landscape opens up. I can actually see through the gum trees and beyond. The weeds on the sides of the road are tinged a reddish brown as is the dirt. I guess that they grow that color. We stop for lunch next to a river and lagoon, so Bert can bird while I make sandwiches. The scene is so pretty I have to take a number of pictures from the camper. We arrive in Cooktown around 2 PM and our first choice of campground is already full. Second choice is almost full so we had better take the spot. It is still drizzly outside, so no walk for us. But our big windows show off the woods and the creek behind us and a wallaby comes to visit. It had better stay close to camp as I cannot tell you the number of dead wallabies and kangaroos I see while driving.
(Bert) We have a late start to Cooktown, a place I wanted to visit mostly because it is on the map, it is reached by paved road and it is the closest I’ll get to New Guinea this trip. I expect our route to pass through wet rainforest like we see in Julatten. Instead we find dry rainforest soon after we turn on the Peninsula Developmental Road, especially past Mt. Carbine. Dry red brown grass with scattered trees envelope the severally rolling hills. Although Kangaroos are regular road kill here, we see no live ones. In fact, I don’t see much wildlife at all until we stop beside a white-flower laden lagoon. Here hundreds, perhaps a thousand, Magpie Geese gather and I find a few Black Swans as well. We stop at Palmer River roadhouse and while Shari checks out the inside I explore the outside. A flock of bright green-and-red parrots moves from tree to tree, my first view of Red-winged Parrots. We arrive at Cooktown in light rain and I try venturing out twice, but the rain is discouraging. Instead, we watch an adult and yearling Agile Wallaby just outside our window.
(Shari) “You have four choices”, I tell Bert, “Anglican, Catholic, Jehovah Witness and Baptist”. He chooses Anglican but I am unable to find an address, the telephone number given does not work, and no one is in the campground office to ask. At 8:30 we decide just to drive to town. We pass the Catholic church and ask a man crossing the street about the Anglican. He tells us the Anglicans hope to build a structure across the street as soon as they sell the building straight down the hill at the corner. We drive straight down and look on the corner but find nothing resembling a church. At the wharf I ask two men conversing with each other. One of the men says he does not know about the Anglican Church, but gives us directions to the Baptist church. “This is where we are going,” I say to Bert. We drive to the church and note services start in 45 min., just time enough for Bert to check out the botanic gardens.
(Bert) Rain still sprinkles when I head to the shower before sunrise, holds up for the half-hour I visit Cooktown Botanic Gardens (developed already in 1890), and increases in intensity when we walk from our RV to the Baptist Church. Locals say the rain is unusual in July. The strong rushes of wind, however, are typical. One of the men opens windows to allow the rush of cooler air and another says people would not live in Cooktown without the breeze, as the heat would be too oppressive. Visitors nearly outnumber parishioners this morning. I notice that only two or three other men are wearing long pants and I would have been more like the locals if I had not switched from my shorts just before the service. We are the only ones from outside Australia and again we are generously welcomed.
(Shari) We are warmly greeted when we enter the small wooden structure, with about 50 white plastic outdoor chairs lined up in five rows. A young woman dressed in washed-out jeans opens the service with introductions of the visitors. Fifteen of the 30 in attendance are visitors. She notices that we are from the USA and she asks if we came directly to Cooktown. Bert says, “We swam all the way here”. This gets a chuckle out of many. The woman then leads us in a few songs, words projected on a screen. Then she asks for prayer requests. After the lengthy prayers, I notice 45 min. have passed and we did not have a sermon yet. I try to figure out the position of the woman. Is she the pastor, her name does not match the man’s name as pastor on the bulletin. Is she the pastor’s wife? No, his wife is sitting next to him. She then relinquishes the leadership to the pastor. He says he has 5 min. to deliver the sermon, but takes 25 min. The whole experience lacks something. Bert says it is the liturgy I miss, as Baptists just sing, pray and have a sermon. I say we go to a Baptist church in Livingston, and they have liturgy and I like that one. Maybe it is the informality of the service, no microphone, unruly loud kids sitting behind us making noise, the accent, the mumbling, and the aside comments. Maybe it is just plain age and hard of hearing. The message is good about God’s keeping His promises, the songs are snappy and singable, and the people are friendly, but still, something is missing.
(Bert) Baptists have a less liturgical service than many mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, and this is certainly the case today. In fact, it is so casual there is a regular interaction between laity and leaders. The song leader, a young woman, is quite personal, enthusiastic and talented. The preacher gets sidetracked with his computer and shows us a few cute cartoon videos with a Christian message before he starts on his Powerpoint sermon. Shari and I have trouble understanding what he is saying because he doesn’t use a microphone (with only five rows of chairs you wouldn’t think it necessary), he speaks Australian, and a family of boisterous youngsters is sitting behind us. With all the sideshows and distractions, the service ends after 90 min. and we leave before tea is served because we hoped to be on the road by now.
Shari again takes her turn at driving and is getting quite good at it. I fall asleep only to be awakened a few minutes later when Shari hits a bump and the refrigerator door swings open. As I crawl in back, a plastic container falls out of the refrigerator and its contents dump on the floor. I hang on while Shari pulls off to the side and I manage to get the refrigerator back into order. My turn to drive.
(Shari) After the service we head out. The people keep apologizing about the rain and it is drizzly, cool and windy until we hit the other side of Black Mountain, its blackness due to lichen on the surface of the boulders. I take a turn at driving again, having only one steep curvy incline and descent and one experience with cattle on the road. Downshift to fifth–opps not enough, downshift to fourth–opps that was third. Can’t talk now as I am concentrating on my gears. Shift back up to fifth–opps that is third. Hurry up or I will choke the engine. Shift, shift, shift. Too many gears. I decide to can do without fifth, going directly from fourth to sixth. It works. Tomorrow maybe I do without third too.
Here I thought I was done with road logs. We happen to retrace our steps on our way west and actually can log two routes in the proper direction. Later, when I compare it to my reverse route, it is pretty accurate. We stop at the rodeo, one of our planned campsites in October, and find out that we have to pay between 4 and 6 PM. The volunteer gatekeeper is at first not very sympathetic but I must soften him up a bit and he tells us to see Jim and Shirley at the house behind the grandstand. Jim and Shirley tell us it will be no problem to come in after 6, just stop at the house to pay. Good thing we stopped there again.
We stop at a peanut place. Those of you who know Bert, know how he LOVES peanuts. This is the place for him. We could sample all their flavors, and I mean flavors: salted peanuts tasting like curry, ginger and honey, beer nuts, vinegar and salt, Cajun, sweet and sour, cheese and on and on. Bert buys 3 lb. of them. I bet they will be gone in three weeks.
At 5 we stop for the night but the campground is full. They find a non-powered site for us so that we do not have to drive at night. It may not be school holidays, but this is still high season in northeast Australia. I wonder if we will ever get away from crowded campgrounds. It is near impossible to book ahead. How do you know how far you will travel in a day? What attractions will keep you from making time? What road conditions will you run into? What time will you depart in the morning? But I do think we could stop driving earlier in the day. Instead of 5 PM, try 3.
(Shari) Seems to be a misnomer to me: DRY rainforest. But here I stand in what they tell me is the dry rainforest. Trees form a canopy but one you can see through and some of the trees loose their leaves in the dry season to conserve moisture. I stop here because I am tired of driving, I am hungry, it is time for lunch and it’s a cute place to stop. The place is called Forty Mile Scrub National Park. We take a 10 min. interpretative walking trail meandering through the forest.
All morning we drive west along the Savannah Way, a nice wide flat road through grasslands and only sparely populated. It may not have many people but I count six dead kangaroos within 30 min. Tour books describe the area as the quintessential outback where land meets sky. Signs warn of truck trains, those long moving trucks with up to four semi-trailers trailing behind. They have the right of way as well they should. I imagine it would take a lot to stop them. We see three or four of them, but they only have three trailers attached. We go through a few bumps in the road called mining towns known for copper and semiprecious stones, but mostly we travel 50 mph, seeing few other vehicles. Those we do see are usually other RVer’s.
Stopping early, I am not all that surprised that the first choice campground is full. The flyer I picked up yesterday did say, “Bookings required”. It seems like a good attraction, with campsites near lava tubes formed thousands of years ago. A bush breakfast is also part of the advertising. Alas, we save some money when we are turned away. Moving on, we stop at Mt. Surprise and I just hate it when I ask at the desk if they have room for the night and they act as if they do not. Upon further thought all of a sudden they come up with something. Here they have a ton of empty sites and it should not have even been a question of an opening. The town is quaint with lots of local color. Inside of the reception/gas station is a large collection of rocks, minerals, semiprecious stones and jewelry behind glass doors. The variety is fascinating and the gentleman tells me he found all the artifacts himself. Next door is a cute café, decorated in memorabilia of earlier days. On the grounds are a variety of caged birds. We are parked under the shade of trees, but I do not feel closed in. As I write this, I see Bert talking to another couple next to the swimming pool. So many people are fascinated by his camera and long lens and they strike up long conversations.
(Bert) We are driving on a relatively flat 800-meter high plateau in western Queensland. Along a route designated Savannah Way, we are sometimes surrounded by 20-40 ft. trees breaking up a grassy savannah and at other times the trees are sparse and it looks mostly like red-brown grasslands. We drive through a dry rainforest at Forty Mile Scrub National Park and stop at a rest area with many interpretative signs. One identifies a Broad-leafed Bottletree, an odd shaped tree just like a beer bottle with smooth gray bark and no side branches until the neck of the bottle. Another identified tree is Burdekin Plum and many of the plump plums litter the forest floor. This is the same plum which featured in the cassowary scat and the aborigine’s presentation as a food source. As Shari and I finish the loop trail an unknown bird flies past me and arrests just beyond a fork in a tree and a good photo shot. I look up this blue-backed, orange-fronted, long-tailed bird with the orange eye orbital and find it as Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo.
I notice many road kill along the highway and before we exit the national park I count 25 dead kangaroos and wallabies in a 3 km stretch, far exceeding that in other areas, although 1 or 2 every 5 km is not uncommon. A parrot lands briefly in a shrub beside the road and all I note is baby blue body with dark blue wings. Later when we stop at a campground in Mt. Surprise (313 km west of Cairns) I photograph another and show the photo to the campground owner. He identifies Pale-headed Rosella.
I briefly see a red, black and white bird that has an interesting lifestyle. The Mistletoebird feeds exclusively on mistletoe fruits, first removing the outer skin, then swallowing the sweet jelly-like layer. The seed is defecated, but the fruity bird poop is very sticky and adheres to branches of other trees that the Mistletoebird visits, thus propagating the mistletoe in new hosts for the parasitic plant.
In the horse pasture adjoining the campground are many Apostlebirds, non-descript gray birds resembling crows. Later when I show my photos to an Australian couple, recently emigrated from South Africa, I remark that I do not know where Apostlebirds got their name. Still later, they stop me in the park to say the campground owner told him it is because the birds always appear in groups of 12. Well, I haven’t noticed dozen-based groupings, but will attest that these are very chummy birds that congregate together, feather against feather, on tree branches, cheerfully spreading the gospel.
(Shari) Carpentaria. Now that is a body of salt water that I never heard of before today. It is to northern Australia as the Gulf of Mexico is to southern USA (without the oil spill). We are headed to a town at its tip called Karumba. About the only obstacles we encounter on our trip are dead kangaroos. They are everywhere and as I drive, I weave around them as I imagine they are just as treacherous when hit dead as alive. Avoiding them is more difficult when the road is only one lane as so often is the case. Two-lane roads alternate with 10-20 mi. sections of one-lane roads where oncoming traffic and I take to the gravel shoulders to pass each other.
(Bert) In the middle of nowhere, Shari spots a tall round chimney and a nearby sign identifying it as an historic site. Spotting flocks of birds I drive to a pond prominently signed Cumberland Mine Toxic Waste Site. Apparently no one told the 1000+ birds for I find: White-faced Herons, Straw-necked Ibises, Pacific Black Ducks, Wandering Whistling-Ducks, Magpie Geese, Green Pygmy Geese, Comb-crested Jacana, and eight other species including a new one for me, Australasian Grebe.
We stop for lunch at Croyton and while Shari is preparing sandwiches, as usual I venture out to see what birds I can find. Best one is a sedentary Restless Flycatcher. Back on the road again, Shari is napping when I see an Emu just as it sees me, about faces and hightails it deeper into the brushy savannah.
Just beyond Normanton I pull to the side near a waterhole when I see cranes. Shari tells me she read that Brolga occur here. I photograph the three and later when perusing my bird book I read that in Normanton in 1966 they discovered a new species, Sarus Crane. Actually the bird had occurred there for as long as people remember, but it wasn’t until 1966 that someone recognized it wasn’t the look-alike Brolga. I dump my photos to the computer and examine them closely. It is Sarus Cranes that I photographed and best yet, later in Karumba I also photograph Brolga, a very large crane.
Our campground this evening is at Karumba, near the southern tip of the Gulf of Carpentaria, a northern outlet to the Pacific Ocean. Trees are filled with hundreds of noisy Little Corellas, an all white parrot-like bird. The camper under one of the densely loaded trees says it rains big leaves on his camper as the corellas strip the tree naked.
(Shari) Again tonight we are taking our second choice campground and camping without electrical hookups to boot. I do not know where all the people come from because we sure do not meet them on the highway but by the time we stop in the afternoon, all sites are gone. One woman tells me to “ring” ahead. I would do that, but my prepaid phone does not have these rural places programmed into its calling area. The man camped next to us hit a kangaroo on the same road we took a few hours later. The whole front end of his car is smashed and where his headlamp should be is now a gapping hole; he is very thankful he is alive. He says the kangaroo hit him and then catapulted over the top of the car. He duct-taped his headlights to the ragged body so they would not rattle and taped his hood to keep it from flying open when he drives. The car is a mess. Later while Bert is birding I take a stroll over to the fish cleaning tables available to campground guests. This area is known for those huge freshwater river fish called barramundi. A man and his wife are there cleaning a BIG fish and I ask if it is a barramundi. He says no, but shows me a photo on his phone of the one he caught last month. He is now cleaning a bottlenose shark. Soon I am walking home with three packages of shark meat. Neat! I promised I would mention him in my blog as Steven, the Great Fisherman.
(Bert) The flat tableland resembles the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle, nearly treeless grasslands with occasional playas where on a few occasions I see Little Egret or a trio of Brolga. After a few dozen kilometers of this terrain, trees fill the landscape again, short 15-20 ft. trees, sparse enough so we can see a few hundred yards. We cross Walker Creek and come to the area that was ablaze yesterday. An untended grassfire slowly made its way along the roadside, only on the west side and not far into the range. This morning it is blackened ground with clumps of grass that did not burn. Dark olive bushes and all of the trees are still intact and unharmed. Yesterday, hundreds of Black Kites were attracted to the fire, dancing in the air just above treetops, scanning for anything escaping that might be easy prey. This morning dozens of kites still survey the scene and I continue to see many even after the fire area stops at Twelve Mile Creek.
The highway is paved double lane for long stretches, interspersed with shorter sections of single paved lane with very wide cinder gravel shoulders that allow crossing traffic to keep one wheel on pavement and one off. At one such transitional place near Flinders River, I slow for oncoming traffic and notice a Bustard close to the road. I pull to the side and stop to get great close up photos of this oversized bird, so big that Shari thinks it is a crane at first.
We travel 504 km today, without a single stop sign and passing through only two towns, Normanton and Cloncurry, where we refuel. Our stop for the day is a rest area between Cloncurry and Mt. Isa. We are surprised that at 3 PM it is already almost filled with campers spending the night. Finding no side roads or paths for walking, I follow the highway to see what birds inhabit this dry outback. I use my camera to record a singing Brown Honeyeater and identify a distant Silver-crowned Friarbird. I study some small birds that defy identification by hiding and then flying off. I see enough colors on one to know it is Striated Pardalote.
(Shari) I keep comparing where I am to other places I have been. It is odd when you travel country looking like the Panhandle of Texas and end up in a seaside town like Punta Gorda, Belize, with its clapboard houses on stilts and easy going nature. Or traveling country looking like West Texas and seeing pink-breasted parrots fly across the road like weakly thrown pink footballs. It is like this and then again it isn’t like this. We are on our way to Darwin on the tip of the Northern Territory. It will take us at least four days, as it is well over 2000 miles away, through country populated by kangaroos, snakes and cattle. Again we stop midway between towns, 120 mi. this time, at Burke and Wills roadhouse. We hardly meet any cars and now I know why: they are all here. It is a bustling place with take-away meals, fuel, campground and motel. There is nothing worth mentioning between towns except the occasional RVer coming towards us every 5-10 min. lifting one or two fingers up off the steering wheel as his way of saying hello. We stop for the night at our first choice. It is a rest area I read about and already 32 other campers claim it as home for the night. We haphazardly park where we can fit. The price is right and we are off the road. During the night the only noises I hear are the road trains, those big trucks pulling 3 to 4 trailers, extending up to 174 ft. long. Lit up like Christmas trees, each trailer outlined in strings of orange or red lights, they barrel down the highway at break neck speed and I am happy that they move mostly during the nighttime hours.
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