We were quite sorry to leave Fraser Island, it seemed like at least a week too soon, but we had a schedule to maintain; there was a dive-boat waiting for us in Cairns, it would sail at 0700 on the 16th of January, with or without us and there was still about 15 hours-worth of driving ahead and a couple of places we wanted to visit on the way. The first of these was Capricorn Caves, just north of Rockhampton, in the heart of cattle country and so-named because of their location, basically right on the Tropic of Capricorn. The Lonely Planet guidebook for the East Coast of Australia sees fit to give the caves a feature panel all to themselves and, as they were about the right driving distance from Fraser Island, (5 hours), and Rockhampton itself didn’t sound too exciting, we booked ourselves a small cabin at the caves.
The cabin was brilliant with 2 bedrooms, fully-fitted kitchen, outside decking area, TV and communal BBQ area and the obligatory air-conditioning. We arrived there late in the evening just in time to check in and then get ourselves back down the hill to the busy and friendly local pub for dinner. We later discovered that this pub had originally been built in the late 1800s by the family of John Olsen, the Norwegian who discovered the caves in 1882. Canny person that he was he kept quiet about his discovery until he’d successfully negotiated a lease on the land. Once the ink was dry he opened them as a tourist attraction and the tourists came flooding in to see this natural phenomena. The pub was built on-site to provide accommodation for the visitors and it’s since been moved to its present location, just off the A1, Bruce Highway. The caves themselves are nothing special when you compare them to Cheddar or the ones in Pyrenees but definitely worth a visit if you’re passing by.
On the first night we decided to use our newly purchased, powerful, torch and go for a self-guided nature walk in the grounds. Apart from a few cane toads we didn’t find much until, walking back along the path towards our cabin, something caught our eye on the path ahead. Swinging the torch away from the tress, which we’d been carefully studying, we discovered a medium-sized python lying right on the spot where Faye was about to walk. We of course gave it a wide berth and had a giggle at our – or rather Faye’s – close encounter.
The following day we booked ourselves on two separate tours
of the caves, the standard family one followed by, for Faye and Ian, the “adventure” one. It was on this latter tour that Ian discovered just how claustrophobic he is; having got all togged up to follow our guide with Faye he baulked at the first tunnel – too tight, too hot, too dark – computer said no!
Our next port of call was Eungella National Park, further north and up in the mountains to the west of Mackay. We’d originally planned to go to Airlie Beach but a leaflet on the counter at Capricorn Caves change our minds, promising the opportunity to see Platypus in their natural setting. The drive there from Capricorn Caves, (again about 5 hours), was an experience in itself. Just north of Rockhampton, at Marlborough, the satnav directed us off the Bruce Highway onto a road which ran parallel but on the
other side of the coastal ranges. Once we’d finished climbing, twisting and winding through the coastal ranges the change in landscape was striking. We found ourselves on a huge, dry, semi-arid plain, stretching westwards for as far as the eye could see, we were in the outback! Back home this would have been classified as a B road, and we soon began to worry about the total lack of, well anything really – would there be any petrol stations? Relief came when we came across the only one on the road at Lotus Creek – a cattle-shed turned into a service station and run by a Scot from Inverurie! This was a welcome relief even though the ham sandwiches were pretty basic and the heat was rather oppressive.
Our little road eventually twisted and wound its way back through the coastal ranges to re-join the Bruce Highway at Sarina, 245 kilometres after having left it back in Marlborough. The change in landscape was almost immediate, back to fertile land with sugar cane as far as the eye could see. We soon turned westwards up the very wide Pioneer Valley and headed for the mountains – well at, less than 700 metres, hills by
our standards – in the distance. All of the climbing came in the final kilometres, up to over 600 metres, making for some interesting gradients and hairpins on the way up to the village of Eungella perched right on the edge of the escarpment. Driving along the edge of the escarpment for the final few kilometres to the Broken River resort we were treated to some amazing views back down across the valley to the distant sea.
The Broken River resort is an absolute gem of a place; it’s quite small with a number of basic cabins set in parkland by the river. Right next to it are two purpose-built Platypus viewing platforms, one upstream and the other downstream from the road bridge which crosses the river. The grounds of the resort are populated by some noisy
Kookaburra and even noisier white cockatoos, (which together make an alarm clock unnecessary) plus some Wallabies and a family of Possums which come to feed on scraps left by the chef. The place has been run for the last 15 years by an English couple who are more than happy to facilitate your wild-life watching and organise a range of walks, (mainly free of charge) for their guests.
Our first attempt to see Platypus, on the evening of our arrival, was unsuccessful so we
were up before dawn the following day and were rewarded with the pay-off we were hoping for – two Platypus feeding in the river, which we watched for a good half hour. Later that day the owner drove us further up country dropping us at the start of a 10Km walk which followed the river through the rain-forest back to the resort. This walk re-enforced two lessons that we’d learned on Fraser Island; most wildlife is nocturnal and when you’re trekking along you make too much noise to have a realistic chance of seeing anything. Out of the three of us it was again Faye who had the closest encounter with nature, this time in the form of leeches!
Our stay was rounded off that evening with another torch-lit nature walk, guided by a local resident, during which we encountered– Frogmouths, bats, Wallabies, Possums and some more of the local Platypus family.
Somehow after all of that activity the previous day we managed to get up early and it was back in the car for another 5 hour drive to Townsville, one step closer to our date with the barrier reef at Cairns. We hadn’t expected much from Townsville and so it easily exceeded these low expectations and
we spent two pleasant nights in a city centre AirBnB apartment. The city has a seafront walk, the Strand, where a fair proportion of the population turn out in the evening to jog, walk and otherwise enjoy the fresh (but very hot) air. This was our first experience of the dreaded “stingers” and the sea was noticeably empty of swimmers, due to the fear of getting caught up in some of the very dangerous jelly-fish that frequent this area at this time of year. Our one full day in Townsville was divided between scouring the amazing outdoor stores, (think Wickes but full of camping, fishing, hiking gear, etc), shopping for a rucksack for Faye and visiting the impressive Reef HQ aquarium where an informative volunteer guide whetted our appetite for what was awaiting us further north.
And so, after 2 nights it was up again and onwards towards Cairns and our much-awaited date with the Great Barrier Reef.