25. Australian Road Trip: Far North Queensland and the Hot Tropics
Mission Beach is the archtypal tropical beach resort - go in winter, it's much easier to enjoy than during the stinger and wet season.
Quirky tourist attraction - impressive crumbling ruins of an eccentic's dream
Welcome to Far North Queensland
The tropical north of Queensland is one of Australia’s most popular tourist destinations for both overseas visitors and Aussies from the more temperate climes down south. In my definition, the region known as ‘Far North Queensland’(FNQ) runs from Airlie Beach, south of Townsville, all the way up to Cooktown at the foot of the Cape York Peninsula. Along this 1000km stretch of coast are some of the World’s most intriguing and spectacular attractions.
Oh yes, it’s all here, starting with the Big One – the World’s Largest Living Thing and one of the Top Ten Natural Wonders of the World: The Great Barrier Reef. Then there is Cape Tribulation, the Atherton Tablelands, The Daintree River, Magnetic Island, and The Whitsunday Islands. There is Townsville, Port Douglas, Kuranda and Mareeba. There are high mountains, rushing streams, waterfalls, beaches, jungles, crocodiles, deep sea fishing, markets, historical sites, and at the centre of it all, the universal city of Cairns. Far North Queensland is indeed, a Very Cool Place.
We are now in the heart of FNQ. It is Mid-march and we have been on the road for six weeks. We have misjudged our timing a bit and have arrived in the tropics too early - splash bang in the middle of a late wet season. It is not the preferred time to experience the tropics, but in some ways it is the best time. It is hot, not overcrowed with tourists, and mate, can it rain!
The Wet Tropics Rock
With the mild trauma of Rollingstone behind us, we rumble happily northward through a wavering ocean of sugar cane. Fast moving curtains of rain blur the plush, velvet-green mountains on our left, until the sun follows through behind the showers and the air is filled with steam and rainbows.
Tully prides itself on being the wettest town in Australia and there is a giant concrete gumboot in the municipal park to illustrate how much rain fell in the town in one year, or was it in one day? Whatever the record, it is raining hard as we drive through the place. Tully is the main market town in the area, which not only produces sugar cane, but abundant crops of bananas, pineapples, mangos and other tropical delights. But Tully is merely a place for us to shop. Our destination today is Mission Beach.
Turn off the Bruce Highway to Mission Beach, and you enter a World Heritage Wet-Tropical Rainforest. It is classic jungle, of the Tarzan kind. There are massive trees draped in vines and an impenetrable wall of palms, ferns, bamboo and bush that crowds right up to the edge of the road. At times the rain falls so heavily that it feels like we are driving underwater. The jungle smells like only jungle could smell - of sweetly rotting vegetation; thick, rich and earthy.
This is Cassowary Country.
This is one of the few places on earth where these endangered and surreal-looking flightless birds can easily be encountered. As I think this, I see one of the creatures standing statue-like on the edge of the road, contemplating the asphalt river that divides its domain. It looks like a blue-necked dinosaur with a black bony horn on its head. It is an impressive looking creature, albeit one of the lesser known of the curious Aussie menagerie. This first sighting causes us great excitement and though we don’t, we could easily have run the Cassowary over in our scramble for the camera. needless to say the big bird darted back into the jungle and we never saw another.
No Country for Winnebagos
A couple of kilometres later we pass a narrow lane sign-posted as a “Scenic Jungle Drive”. No sooner have I turned the Winnebago onto the lane than I regret it. The drive is made of red dirt turned to liquid by the downpour. It is only a single track with a small ditch on either side and walls of fetid jungle rising straight up and over, making it a sort of tunnel with very little light penetrating through the canopy. Once committed, we have no choice other than to follow the road to its end as there is no place to turn around and no margin of error on either side. We just keep on going, the wheels spinning and slipping in the mud. While making light of our predicament to Sheila, I am seceretly shitting myself – we could be stuck down here, for ever.
Luckily for us the scenic drive is only a couple of kilometres long and there is a enough of a turnaround at the end. Satisfied that we can drive out, we decide to walk along a marked trail, but seriously, there a mosquitoes in here that could eat cassowaries, and it is raining in biblical proportions again.
I don’t know what it is about Mission Beach that makes us like it so much, but we do. Perhaps after last night’s horror-movie moments at Rollingstone, it is nice to be in a proper tropical town. Mission Beach and its neighbouring villages are spread out along a strip of coast at the edge of this fantastic jungle. There are lots of well-established homes, tropical gardens and coconut palm forests leaning out over the beaches. There are cafés, shops, boutiques and bars, and a sense that this is an altogether more salubrious place than anywhere we have visited since Noosa. It is a bit Noosery come to think of it, but on a tiny scale and sadly, without the surf.
Just a couple of Kilometres offshore, is the jungle-covered hump of Dunk Island, one of the inner Barrier Reef resort islands. All along this bit of gentle coast there are sailing clubs and water ski places and diving centres. The only problem of course, especially this time of the year, are those blasted stingers or jellyfish. You just can’t risk swimming in the ocean here without protection. During the Wet, you should really only swim in the netted swimming enclosures and wear stinger suits as well, (Stinger suit: basically a human-shaped nylon condom).
The Municipal Campground
We park up in the council run caravan and camping park which is on a grassy field shaded by mature palms and tall eucalyptus trees with easy access to the beach. Being council run the place is really basic, rundown and overgrown. The Camp Office is hilarious but we love it. This office is like no other office. It incorporates an old, never-to-move-again bus, a caravan and a large canvas tarpaulin. Under the tarp there is a rickety table, a sign saying OFFICE and behind a bamboo screen, a circle of well used chairs, coffee table, full ashtrays and empty tinnies.
The manager is a typical Aussie character who tells us he has ended up here after years of living on the road in various places up and down this coastline. He is the epitome of chilled out and we are infected by his contented lethargy and are soon totally at peace with our surroundings for the first time in many days, despite the heat and the rain and the incessant insects. And as an added bonus, look around – no cane toads.
That evening we find a magical bar and restaurant in the nearby village. We sit at a rough-hewn, candle-lit table under a canopy, while the lush jungle drips and steams around us and we are entertained by a folksy/bluesy duo and the goings on of various other patrons. We eat a tasty meal, drink way too much cold beer and at midnight, laugh in the face of rain as we splash through puddles on our way back to the van. Inside it is virtually insect proof, very dry and with our electric fan whirring away it is bearably cool. All in all, life in the wet tropics is looking good.
We can’t stop moving. As nice as it is, after two nights at Mission Beach we are impatient to be on the road again. If the sun stayed out and we could swim in the protected enclosure, we might have stayed put for a while longer, though what we are really looking for is 'The Perfect Place' and we haven’t quite found it in yet.
So, for a change, we leave the coast and let our Rough Guide lead us up into the foothills of the Atherton Tablelands, past the big market town of Innisfail and on to a quirky architectural attraction known as Paronella Park.
The road is small and rural, winding and zigzagging through cane fields, past little villages, over log bridges and gradually climbing up into the misty mountains that have shadowed our late afternoons for the past few days.
Paronella Park is the remains of a bizarre house and garden complex built by a Portuguese immigrant over a period of many decades. It’s crumbling concrete structures have decayed and been taken over by the jungle so that walking through the Park feels a bit like you have stumbled upon a Lost Mayan Temple. An elderly and very knowledgeable lady takes us on a guided tour with a half dozen others and it is well worth the money. One of the most stunning things to see here, apart from the ruins, are the huge, beautiful butterflies, in emerald green or cyan blue, that flutter about the flowering hibiscus bushes.
We are permanently wet now. When the rain stops, the temperature rises intolerably, the humidity increases and everything sweats; then the sky bursts into cooling tears once again. Curiously, I’m beginning to enjoy this climate. Perhaps I’m a masochist, or maybe I am finally starting to go proper Troppo.