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23. Australian Road Trip - Welcome to the Deep North: Bundaberg to Rollingstone
Agnes Water and Seventeen Seventy - off the beaten track, good surf, warm ocean, Barrier Reef just up the road, but soon to be over-commercialised?
Between the Rock and a Wet Place
With the delights of Fraser Island behind us, we begin the long drive up the Queensland coast, our sights firmly set on the tropical city of Cairns in the far north of the state. Like the rest of the east coast, Queensland is mainly inhabited along its fertile coastal fringe; while the interior, beyond the Great Dividing Range of mountains, quickly gives way to the vast, uninhabitable outback. Our journey is excruciatingly slow, but reliably steady too, our old Toyota-cum-Winnebago slowly consuming, carefully chewing and thoroughly digesting every black, tar-sealed mile.
First stop of the day is the major town of Bundaberg, famous Australia-wide as the home of Bundy Rum, one of the most popular drinks in Oz, next to beer, wine and Jack Daniels (and Jack’s little cousin, Jim Beam). Bundaberg is a big country town with typical broad boulevards, shaded sidewalks, colonial-style pubs and the usual array of Australian high street stores. We stop long enough to have a bite of lunch at a street café and to purchase a bottle of the lovely, treacle-brown intoxicant in the yellow-labelled bottle with the polar bear logo.
We move on from Bundaberg, avoiding the Bruce Highway and driving into a mini-wilderness on a minor road that leads to a pair of isolated and little known towns, ‘Agnes Waters’ and ‘Seventeen Seventy.’ (So named because Captain Cook set foot here on the 24th May 1770, the first white man to visit Queensland). Agnes Waters is the last accessible beach on the east coast where one can find good waves suitable for surfing. North of Agnes Waters, the Great Barrier Reef thwarts the ocean swells and turns the coastal waters into what is basically, one long, waveless, tidal lagoon.
As we near the coast, dark clouds loom ahead and soon rain is pelting down. With the sun obscured, the day quickly darkens. Late in the gloomy afternoon, we finally arrive at Agnes Waters. Some say that Agnes resembles Noosa of 30 years ago and I can see why. The town is rustic and lacks the sophistication and trendiness of Noosa, but on the forested hills in which it sits, there are some extraordinary new houses jutting out of the trees in spectacular fashion. It wont be long before the secret is out and the commercial developers move in to transform this quaint little community into a bijou resort. The old fashioned campground is located right beside the beach. There is a grassy field shaded with palms and a path that leads directly on to the sand. At the end of the beach, a headland sticks out into the sea and through the pelting rain, I can see waves breaking off the point.
Learn more about the "Discoverer" of Australia
The following day is no different, just rain and more rain. I go surfing anyway. The sea is very warm, and so is the rain, and I spend an enjoyable if somewhat waterlogged couple of hours catching waves with a handful of uncommunicative locals. We hope in vain for the rain to stop and the sun to break through, but no luck, so by the second soggy morning, we just close the camper door and move on.
We don’t know it at the time, but this rain is just the beginning. The offshore storm that is currently lashing this part of Queensland will later pound Fraser Island and move further south to create massive, destructive waves all along the Gold Coast. We have actually just been clipped by the outer end of a tropical storm. We've been lucky with the weather so far on this trip. We’ve had rain, wind, and some very hot days, but overall it has been benign. However, there is something in the tropical air and we don't understand it. The wet season doesn’t just finish on a particular date; this rainy patch is probably the last gasp of the summer wet. In a week or so the warm dry days and cool, comfortable nights will kick in and all will be balmy in the tropics - which is where we are headed!
Welcome to the Deep North, Mate!
By the time we reach the city of Rockhampton on the Tropic of Capricorn (23° 26' 22"), the sun is once again out and all is indeed well in tropical Australia. With a population of about 74,500, and receiving over 300 days of sunshine a year, Rockhampton is both an important cattle town and a major tourist and recreation area. It has broad streets and some elegant colonial architecture, and there are life-size statues of cattle all over the place, on roundabouts, on plinths and on rooftops. The mighty Fitzroy River flows past the city and despite it’s classic Victorian appearance, there is a frontier feel to the place.
We hang around long enough to eat lunch, then head out on a detour to the coast. Stopping for the night at the holiday town of Yeppoon.
This is a reasonably attractive town set on a hillside overlooking a broad bay. It is low tide and the bay is mostly mudflats. It seems like it is always low tide along this coast. It was when I stopped here on my road trip in 1982, and you can bet it will be low tide in the morning when we leave. The sand on the beach is hard and slightly muddy – not so nice. Just to put the seal on any possibility that we might want to live here forever, we notice a disturbing sign on a shop in town that says “No Speak English, No Get Served”. Yeeha, welcome to the Deep North of Australiya.
A Highway Called Bruce
It is out there alright - the Outback -more or less just over those parched hills to our left. We are grinding out the miles on the long straight highway between Rockhampton and Mackay. There aren’t many towns on this 330 kilometre stretch but we still manage to find a place to stop for a coffee. Marlborough (Pop: 355) is a sleepy town; no, it is a dead town that is even bypassed by the only highway. There is no one about on its single street. There is no traffic. It is not even a town to be fair, but we can still buy a flat white at the general store. We sit outside under the shade of a lone umbrella feeling like a pair of time travelling yuppies who have just landed in some wild west tableau, but who can’t function without their 11am lattes. The coffee is partly spoilt by big bush insects that keep dive bombing us and then Sheila needs the loo. We find facilities in the “Town Park”. Considering we are in the Tropics, it is very hot and dry here. Hot, Dry Tropics it is called. The close-cropped grass in the park is sparse and crunchy under foot and there are signs warning that the water is unfit for human consumption. The town swimming pool is curiously empty and I suddenly have a “Stephen King” moment that makes me want to get the hell out of Marlborough as quickly as possible – which we do.
Back on the Bruce Highway we are right at home. iPod on random shuffle; cooling breeze blowing through the windows; Sheila with her bare feet up on the dash; me rolling a fag while I steer with my knees; Winnie’s little engine grinding away relentlessly and reassuringly; bugs spattering like intermittent raindrops on the windscreen. This is what I love about road trips -the big world flashing past outside while we sit secure in the little world within our vehicle; this is home.
"This is what I love about road trips - the big world flashing past outside while we sit safe and secure in the little world within our vehicle"
Hot Wet Tropics, here we come!
The landscape eventually changes. The dry cattle country becomes greener and sugarcane once again becomes a serious cash crop. Hills clad in thick vegetation, rise up out of the plain. Mackay is another big country town. We stop at a shopping mall and stock up with lots and lots of supplies before heading out of town toward Cape Hillsborough. The Cape is a National Park recommended in our Rough Guide. The road out to the coast is wonderful. All bends, twists and turns through valleys created by tall pointed mountains and old volcanic plugs. There is jungle here, and attractive smallholdings carved out of the lushness. When at last we reach the coast we are pleasantly surprised to find a well equipped backpacker resort and campground tucked into the forest right next to a beach.
The beach is between rocky headlands overlooked by mountains which are blanketed in a forest of strange scultured pine trees that look like topiary. Large rock shapes made of a gnarly, lava-like substance poke up out of the sand along the beach on which there are masses of shells to be found, a treasure-trove of sand dollars. In the cool breeze of the late afternoon, we are seduced by the tropics at last.
That night the mozzies, ants and beetles get us, a reminder that “tropical” doesn’t equal perfect, at least not on the mid-north coast of Queensland.
Other than the insects and the sticky night air, Cape Hillsborough is a pleasant first taste of the Hot Wet Tropics and we are looking forward to being even further north, which is the direction we are heading, first thing in the morning.
200kms north of Mackay we pass the town of Bowen, which is a major area for fruit picking jobs (Backpackers note!). Over the next 100kms, the landscape becomes arid again as we approach the major city of Townsville (Pop: 180,000). The popular and iconic mecca of Magnetic Island lies just off the coast of this modern city but we choose not to bother stopping. Although we have no real timescale on this journey we are being drawn inexorably north and there is nothing, for the time being, that is going to stop this progress.
Like a Rollingstone
Once beyond Townsville's gravitational pull we begin looking for a place to stop for the night. It isn’t late but it’s hot and we like to spend part of our day relaxing or doing something other than driving. Now that we are this far north we feel like it is time to start slowing down a bit. The landscape is changing with every mile. The dry rocky hills to the west are becoming steeper and are covered with forest, which on closer inspection is actually real, Hollywood-style jungle. We are at last in the proper, Hot Wet Tropics. About an hour north of Townsville we come to a place called Rollingstone. There is a campground signposted so we take the turning. Onto a winding old farm road along the coastal flood plain, through endless acres of Cane Fields.
Driving along this stretch of road, I notice strange irregular marks its surface. It’s a bit like the time I pointed out to Sheila that all the little white spots on the pavements and pedestrian precincts of England are in fact flattened blobs of chewing gum. She couldn’t believe it. Nor can she believe it when I point out that the greyish brown blemishes on the road to Rollingstone are actually squashed cane toads. Nor can I really.
The campground at the end of the road is a brand new, modern tourist park with swimming pool, clubhouse, manicured lawns, luxury amenity blocks and a glossy brochure. We sign in and drive down the long palm-lined boulevard to the camping areas. The place looks like a new housing estate or sub-division before the houses have been built. There are curbs and guttering, asphalt roads and numbered pitches, all with slabs. The newness of the place is emphasised by the shrubs that will one day become trees, and the lack of actual guests. We are allocated pitch number 178, just across the road from the beach, where there are only about half a dozen other camps set up in this prime spot. Never mind, it is a pleasant afternoon and we are in what many would consider a tropical paradise.
There is nothing to do now other than pull out the deck chairs and crack a couple of cold ones.