Island, reef & outback: 3 weeks in QLD

by Monday, April 8, 2019

Our Guest Travellers this week have raised the bar in terms of adventure and inspiration. The best way we can think of to summarise this epic, three-week trip by Melburnian Meaghan Siemensma, her partner and their two kids, Lachlan and Chloe, is to say that they well and truly took Queensland by the horns! This three-part journey has certainly given us ideas for future family holidays. We hope it inspires you, too…

Stage 1: The Island

As Melbourne commuters drifted to work, we walked with backpacks to Northcote station to catch the 7:44am to Epping Station, 901 bus to Melbourne airport. $3.90 per person – not bad! A whole day of travel, Virgin lounge hopping, flight to Sydney, connecting flight to Cairns. Landed in Cairns; tropical, 29 degrees, straight to Hertz desk past the vending machine with thongs with aboriginal pattern to pick up ‘Tiggy’, our car for the road trip.

Drove to Ryan’s Boutique Accommodation. A quintessential old Queensland timber house, cheap as chips ($75 a night for 4 people), hauled our backpacks to the second story, dropped our bags and walked to Reef Teach, Cairns’s unique education centre for The Great Barrier Reef. Garth, a South African-born, marine biologist, passionate being, stand-up comedian described the history of the reef, the coral and fish.

Mistruths… The reef is not dying; reef bleaching is normal; cyclones are also normal. If  we lose hope… it will die. Also, it is not stinger season… just summer.

Up early; breakfast in the second-storey kitchen; finished hike-packing. Drove to Port Douglas… Far North Queensland equivalent to the Great Ocean Road, with rainforests. Drove to Mossman Gorge. Back in Cairns, wandered to the man-made lagoon for a swim. Biggest pool I have ever swum in. Then straight to an Italian dinner; the last supper before the hike; very touristy; overlooking the lagoon.
Drove to Cardwell at 5am, 250 kilometres, delicious, $1 hot chocolates at servo, cool tropical air, heavenly mountains and sky blending every shade of charcoal blue. We drove through sugar cane and banana plantation country, through Tully.

On Cardwell beach, in between ‘Crocs Beware’ signs, we met John who ferried us to Hinchinbrook Island. John, salt of the earth, born and bred Cardwelian steered the boat while giving us instructions on how to stay safe, where to find water on the Island. The boat ride was more beautiful than Halong Bay in Vietnam. The island has stunning mountains, covered in mist.

After flying through the water for an hour, we entered a narrow estuary with mangroves on both sides, and stopped at a small, lonely jetty with two big identical signs: ‘Beware of Crocodiles – they will harm or kill you’. Heart of Darkness. John departed, big smile… Yep, you should make… see you in four days at the southern tip of the island. How did I agree to this? John mentioned the winter had a been cold… a three-beanie winter.

We lathered ourselves in tropical strength Deet, put on our packs and set off…  I was terrified of the salt crocs that are located in the beaches and rivers… everywhere. We were told it was dangerous to swim anywhere except above a water fall. We walked. It was hot hard work. Why are we doing this? We stopped for lunch and climbed Nina Peak with an absolutely stunning view. Then on to Banksia Bay where we found no sand-flies and no water.

We were so remote. Pete and the kids, following John’s instructions to find water, walked up a dried creek and returned victorious.

In the afternoon, it clouded over and with a breeze, became perfect walking

In the late afternoon, we hit beach at Little Ramsey Bay and saw three kids in the distance. We arrived at the Nina Bay camp site and met 10 lovely people from Victoria. Phew… safety in numbers.

Had chicken chemicals (two-minute noodles), put up tents in the middle of the 10 people, and went off to collect water. The fresh water collection took 45 minutes and we nearly missed out as the tide was rising and an estuary crossing was required.

It felt very much like the book… we are going on a bear hunt… A complete adventure.

Good quote from the kids: “There are only two good things about hiking… stopping and chicken chemicals”. In the tent after dinner we played the card game ‘Imploding Kittens’. Asleep by 7pm.

Woke. Alive. No croc attack. Up at 5:30am, walked the two metres to the beach, the sunrise, cups of chemical hot chocolate and lattes.

Followed by breakfast, camp pack up and off again.

Left Little Ramsey Bay at 8am, walked along a stunning beach where it was not possible to swim. The terrain was mostly rainforest terrain and lots of mangroves. We walked over large boulders in a dried-out section of a creek. We traversed the creek, there were Queensland Government signs on both sides: ‘Beware – stay away from the water’. I felt like a mobile snack.

Finally arrived at Zoe Falls… the camp site for the second night. We met Diane, and Reef and found a camp site and went up to the waterfall for a swim. It was divine… paradise… a swimming hole and waterfall you see in advertising. We melted into the refreshing water, there were fish, two jumping ropes… heaven after a 10.5km hike over six hours. Chloe and Lach had a ball on the ropes. We were the only people there.

Lach found a coconut in the surf during the after-dinner walk. Asleep by 8:30pm. Hiked 13km that day.

Woke during the night to stalker walking noises around the tent.

Woke at dawn. Alive.

Chloe and Lach cracked the coconut with a Swiss Army knife and then a rock, and drank the milk as a goanna walked straight through the camp site and did a circle around our tent… mystery solved… the stalker the night before.

We set off from the Goanna Retreat, straight back to the waterfall for another swim and rope-swinging adventure.

Embarked for day three, geared up, climbed a bolder with rope assistance to the top of the waterfall. We were greeted with the most beautiful infinity pool. So, back in the water, shoulder massage under mini waterfall, a few water bombs, and geared up again at 10am. We walked in stunning terrain, lots of grass trees, lush rain forest, perfect tropical weather to walk, overcast. Stopped for lunch in dry creek.

A challenging day.  Arrived after scrambling over a stunning dry river bed with different-sized dinosaur eggs. Diane and Reef were already set up at the next camp site. We swam together at Mulligan’s Falls and water hole. It was a deep water hole and stunning beyond words.

Before dinner, we celebrated conquering the hike with Dianne with the best cups of chicken chemicals ever. Diane’s hiking partner had been airlifted off the Island after rolling an ankle. We heard how the EPIRB had been activated, helicopter arrived and Diane’s hike with her two grandsons and a very heavy pack. We were shocked to hear the boys had swam at Nina bay and Little Ramsey, so we said, “Great, we will swim with you tomorrow”. Diane said, “Oh no… can’t swim there”. Local knowledge is everything.

A lovely dinner in our beautiful secluded camp site in the rain forest. We were joined by two mice while there was food on offer. Then slept.

Woke with Lach’s comment from the next tent: “It’s our last day, come on Chloe, let’s put the tent down”.

We awoke with coffee, hot chocolate, chicken chemicals, sweetened condensed milk (direct from the tube). We swam and walked out with Dianne. The last section was along a stunning beach. John picked us up as planned. We had a quick boat trip to Lucina on the mainland.

John detoured our trip back to Cardwell via crocodiles. All sugar cane farms have lagoons to reduce the cane waste being flushed out to the reef. John described, from the safety of his car,  that the lagoon is the home of a five metre alpha croc… ‘big daddy’, five adult female crocs and all the female offspring (the males are killed by big daddy). John said a year ago, driving past this lagoon, he saw a grey nomad waist-deep picking a pink lily flower. John barked, “Get out, you will be attacked!” The man replied, “Sure, just getting the pink flower for my wife”. He survived… bloody lucky.

As John drove slowly along the lagoon, we saw a snippet of a female croc, and then the alpha croc. It was prehistoric. It was huge. Terrifying.

Back to Cardwell. Civilisation. A three-star hotel and beer. Bliss. Upon arrival at Cardwell at the Beach there was a sign ‘Go to bottle shop’. In the bottle shop was Dave. Dave was such a delight, I went back to the car and returned with the entire family. We purchased (real and ginger) beers while Dave described that 200 out of 1400 Caldwell’s inhabitants work seven days, 14 to 16 hours a day. The rest are unemployed.

Dave runs the bottle shop, the hotel and front of house in the hotel restaurant. We unpacked in the deluxe room (compared to camping). In response to an exotic-looking snake on the door mat… I asked Dave for help as he cleaned the pool… no worries, oh, that lives in the outdoor laundry. We swam, washed, hit Cardwell. It is a very dry town with a sad, muddy beach with more big signs: ‘Crocs will kill you’. Every second house for sale. We meandered back to the hotel’s restaurant, Cyclone Yasi, for reef fish and schnitzels. It was a Far North Queensland version of Faulty Towers… so much fun.

Up and off to head south on the road trip. We drove to Ingham (nothing to do with chickens) and headed to Wallaman Falls, Australia’s highest single-drop waterfall. To access the falls you walk down a path (300-metre decent) to the waterfall base and traverse massive boulders to the water’s edge. We asked some locals why no one was swimming and they said it was safe, just too cold. We got in, it was exhilarating swimming to the other side. Pete swam under the water fall.

Walked back up, gave away watermelon to a Swedish kid who said ‘smacked Goat, played 500 on a picnic table and went back to Tiggy to the next stop: a Big4 Caravan Park in Townsville.

The Big4 did have it all… it was next to a major highway, train line. We pitched our tents on parched land, ate the last of the chicken chemicals, played 500 and Imploding Kittens and were asleep at 7:40pm.

Townsville deep in drought like the rest of FNQ. We woke, swam in the huge, kids’ adventure pool, packed up, drove to Townville. Found souvenir: salad servers with a baby croc on the handle. Chloe and Lach were sent to find sunglasses and were found giggling trying on stilettos. Drove further south, listening to “The Saint, The Surfer and CEO” talking book via BorrowBox (free app linked to local library) which led to asking what makes everyone’s heart sing:

Chloe: music, reading, writing, gymnastics

Lach: coding Trampoline, hanging with friends

Pete: swimming under water falls

Arrived in Airlie Beach, found a caravan park Pitched the tent and slept.

Woke to the sound of rain… no… it was a small plane. Our camp site was next door the airport.

Packed up and headed for a cafe breakfast in Airlie Beach… everyone was hungry. We spent the day in the Airlie Beach man-made lagoon. At 5:30pm we departed from the marina and boarded the Solway Lass. The next three days and nights were the highlight of the holiday for Chloe and Lach.

Stage 2: The Reef

The Solway Lass is a two-masted schooner. She was built in the Netherlands in 1902 and now provides sailing experience to people who want to experience the Whitsundays. There were 31 guests and 7 crew members. Three generations on one boat from all over the world. After the safety briefing, mingling with the other passengers, we went to our two-bunk cabin and settled to sleep to the hum of the engine that took us out to the Hook Channel.

Up at 5:30am to see sunrise in Hook Channel.

Warm, calm, 360-degree views of paradise. It was more beautiful than a human can absorb.

Plentiful, delicious breakfast for all before we headed off to the Whitsunday beach, arguably Australia’s most famous beach with the soft white sand made from quartz, and beautiful blue water. In our black lycra stinger suits (courtesy of the crew) we plunged into the divine surf. It was a wonderful swim.

Back to the Solway Lass via a mini speed boat, to lunch, potato au gratin and sausages. We then assisted the crew with steering the ship and hoisting the sails and then relaxed the decks enjoying the views of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park on the way to Border Island. Chloe sat for hours at the very front of the Solway Lass and just gazed out at the beautiful scenery. And Lach just drew picture after picture.

Then more swimming, nachos and wine and a stunning sunset and chicken coconut curry for dinner. Solway Lass‘s captain gave a history lesson, telling us that the back of toilet is the only original part of the boat (we all touched it). On the topic of toilet cubical, it is incredible how little space you need: the shower was in the toilet cubical! We slept soundly.

Up early and up to the deck.

We travelled and anchored in Blue Pearl Bay of Hayman Island to snorkel, swim and explore the beach and then sailed off to another anchorage for a second snorkel with lots of fish. The kids on the boat spent hours on the rope swing until sunset. This might be the most wonderful fun a child can have on earth… A rope is attached to the upper part of the ship, and people cling on and swing into the water.

Sunset drinks with spectacular views from the Solway Lass and great company. A roast dinner, ice-cream-eating competition and a history of the reef since Captain Cook’s time.

Happy birthday Pete… Hayman island to the left and yesterday’s swimming spot to the right.

Today, we headed back to the marina, we saw a shark and all screamed our heads off.

The cruise was a wonderful way to access beautiful yet dangerous places with experts who take you to the best, but safely considered places taking into account the tides, the wild life and all the while telling you the history.  The crew’s comradeship shone through, absolute focus on our safety and an experience of a life time. The sense of fun, adventure, passion for the environment.

The kids got Turk’s Head Knots (anklets made famous by sailors) and we departed… off to a hotel in Proserpine… to start the third stage: the Outback.

Stage 3: The Outback

Drove to Longreach. Tropic of Capricorn.

Dusty road with ant hill people. Deserves its own Facebook page. We were so enthralled, we donated a bikini top and sun glasses and created Gloria.

The idea of camping melted… literally. Longreach can get to 47 degrees. It was 34 degrees today. We booked into a three-star hotel with a cool pool and went to the supermarket. The carpark was full of vehicles with the aircon left on… for dogs. Frozen donuts in gladwrap. Apples $9 a kilo.

So we booked a lovely resort-style hotel… with a freezing pool. We played 500 in the spa with the water resistant cards. Lach was concerned the cards had disintegrated, but Pete found them at the bottom of the pool.

A noisy night in staying at the Proserpine… karaoke was very loud and terrible.

Up early and drove to Alpha. Big road trains: sugar, coal, beef, sheep. Talking book written and read by Andrew Dado about awkward teenage years.

Grand Final. A lot of sad Magpies in Alpha. Very empty, very dry. We drove West all day on the main road made of dirt.

Alpha Caravan Park. The Caravan Park had two permanent guests, and us. We missed the local Spar supermarket, so off to the only dining option in town: the Alpha Golf Course. Delicious.

Woke in Longreach.

We ate the ordered breakfast room service… always fun getting the cold toast and butter and condiments packs. Off to Qantas Founders Museum, across the road. The founders of Qantas were three tenacious, passionate and visionary men. Lach was especially thrilled to be in a plane that Michael Jackson had owned.

Back to swim and play 500 in the chilly water and in Tiggy for a drive to Stonehenge, a town west of Longreach with 25 people. We meet Anna, one of the 25, and had a beverage in the pub. Anna said, “We are not isolated, we have electricity, TV and mobile phones”.  We drove home via dinner in Martin… front paddock watching the sunset. We ate, sitting on rocks in the middle of nowhere, until a ute stops, a lovely young farmer… we are having dinner in his front garden. He just smiles and said, “Gosh, I should have invited you for dinner”. So vast, so beautiful, Chloe took lots of photos and off we went on the drive back to Longreach under the blanket of stars you would never see in a big city. Awe inspiring. We stopped when it was pitch black, to star gaze. We live in a beautiful country.

Woke up and started the long journey home. We had driven 2180 kilometers.

One last tourist gig before leaving Longreach: the Longreach School of Distance Education. The school was most inspiring. The school’s motto is: ‘Effort Conquers Distance’. The school and in fact the whole town had a lovely feeling; the people are tough and lovely. Long reach is expensive, especially fruit and veg.

Drove home via a coal mining town called Middlemount. Everything was brand new. Stayed at Capella Caravan Park; $32 for the night; a swim, dinner at a gaming/pub/restaurant attached to a housing complex of cabin-styled units. Kids playground, all new, no atmosphere. Schnitzels all round. Lach started collecting Bundaberg Rum bottles.

Next day, on the road again, talking book about a 17-year-old assassin. We kept driving to Mackay via sugar refinery tour at Sarina…  In Mackay, we found resort-style, three-star accommodation overlooking the pool. Quick swim, incredible Indian meal, and bed.

Returned and thanked Tiggy, lounge-hopped back to Melbourne, then public transport-hopped back home – a bus and train – straight to Lâm Lâm (our favourite Vietnamese restaurant). Sleep.

Grateful feelings: our holiday gave use three weeks to explore, grow, connect; some parts of the trip planned, others ad hoc.