Queensland Cowboys

April 10 – May 8
Queensland, Australia

Gray Kangaroo at the Billabong Wildlife Sanctuary
New friends at the Billabong Wildlife Sanctuary

Through the dense understory of fan palms and fig vines, there, right there in front of us, was the unmistakable blue skin, red wattle and bright black eyes of Australia’s largest flightless bird: the cassowary. In Daintree National Park, Far North Queensland, we were visiting the ancient and sacred realm of Australia’s Wet Tropics. Here much of the flora and fauna are vestigial throwbacks to Gondwana, the 550 million year-old super-continent that once sutured together the landmasses of the entire southern hemisphere. The cassowary is such a primitive specie that its survival rate in the wild has sadly earned it a spot on the endangered species list, and conservationists insist that only 1,200 to 1,500 remain in the world. But there we were, Oliver, Ryan and I, winding our way slowly through the forest at dusk, and in our path was this incredible animal. Here in Jindalba, the “Place of the Spirits”.

[geolocation]And there were two of them! It was Ollie who first spied the chick fossicking about in the ferns near the adult bird’s enormous feet. I reached to give Ryan’s hand a squeeze; it is the father cassowary who raises the chicks on his own from the time they hatch until the moment they make there way into the forest alone. After a couple of attempts to take a photo in the near darkness, we slowly inched away from the little family, mindful of the cassowary’s blunt talons and powerful legs. I smiled later that night when the attendant at our campground gasped at our report. Only the very lucky few have ever glimpsed a cassowary in the wild.

We quickly learned that meeting nature head on was what Queensland was all about. There were vast sand islands where one could sleep alongside wild dingoes, waterfall-pocked gorges that spilled into crocodile-infested waterways, and eucalypt-fringed highways where koalas clustered overhead. Before long, we were on board a vessel that would ferry us out to one of the country’s most important national treasures (at least in terms of its implication to Australia‘s GDP): the Great Barrier Reef. Despite being jostled by the ship’s cargo of eager 19 to 25 year olds, even Ollie managed to sneak a peak at a family of “Nemos” sheltering in an anemone, and for several hours he paddled to and fro over the spectacular coral formations, trussed up in a protective stinger suit and a pee-wee sized life jacket.

Our first port of call in Eastern Australian was Cairns, where we briefly stewed in the pheromonal confines of the notorious backpacker hub. A multicultural influx of young travelers converged here in the city’s plethora of travel agencies and riotous bars, and for a moment we too were caught up in the flurry of the budget traveler’s mindset. In fact, we very nearly purchased a twenty year-old Camry with 200,000 miles from two German girls who had used the poor thing to circumnavigate the country twice.

Jucy Campervans
Mother of all pimped-out rides: Our home in Australia for 8 weeks

Instead we discovered a small Australian company called Jucy that ran a backpacker-friendly business around kitting out their fleet of Toyota minivans with slide-out mattresses, portable DVD players, on-board propane stoves, battery-powered coolers and buckets of electric green paint. As we had learned in Perth, renting a full-scale motor home would prove to be prohibitively expensive, but we still needed an option that would allow us to tether a child’s car seat somewhere in the back. And we were strangely drawn to Jucy’s multi-passenger model, the Choppa, where in addition to the pull-out mattress inside the car, a pod-shaped device on the roof opened into a fully-enclosed tent that could easily sleep two. Painted across the pod in a saucy cursive were the words: “The Penthouse”.

Outside the rental office, I snapped together the small ladder that was included, rested it against the side of the car and prepared to head up top for an inspection. “I think at one point my parents thought about buying one of those clamshell things. To help the kids get all their gear up to college. Leave it to the Australians to attach some vinyl panels and market it as budget accommodation.”

As ridiculous as we looked in our purple and green monstrosity, we were back on the road, and miles of tropical coastline spread out in front of us. Twenty kilometers out of Cairns, our first stop was the rain forested town of Kuranda where we attempted to visit a hospital for injured flying foxes. The large bats are endemic to Australia’s tropics, where they alight in massive numbers in the boughs of native fruit trees, only to squawk and squeal the night away. Sadly, we were turned away at the door on account of our bad timing, so we ambled through the small town, purchased an ice cream for Ollie, and returned to our van…only to discover a flat tire the front passenger side.

Neither Ryan nor I had a clue what to do. Amidst the cookery and cutlery, the blankets and pillows and sheets and towels, the fold-out picnic tables and chairs and all the other crap that had been thrown in…where could the jack be found? And the spare? How could this possibly have happened TWENTY KILOMETERS away from the rental office? We traded frustrated glances; surely we could have walked all the way up to Kuranda with lesser incident. Needless to say, we managed to locate all the right tools, and Ryan and I was very nearly finished with the change when a gruff Aboriginal fellow passing by insisted that what I was doing could scarcely be considered “woman’s work”, and he finished off what had taken me three-quarters of an hour in no less than sixty seconds.

Once our campa’ was again roadworthy, we sped away from the coast, deep into the Atherton Tablelands where tropical dairy farmers grazed their stock alongside banana groves and rainforested ravines, from which gorgeous waterfalls tumbled over rainbows of spray. Ollie eagerly stripped down to his birthday suit to test the waters in the clear pool below the spectacular Millaa Millaa Falls, and, after donning his clothes again, escorted an elderly Chinese tourist around mud puddles so she could take in the sight from the viewing platform. I suppose he had the intuition that his good behavior would surely be rewarded at one of the many local cheeseries, where, every so often, one of the proprietors specialized in artisanal ice creams.

Further south we drove several miles to the foothills of the Misty Mountains outside of Tully, a small town that is famous for its record-setting annual rainfall (in 1950, it received nearly 24 feet). A fast-flowing river passed through the gorge near out campsite and was heavily signposted with no swimming advisories due to recent crocodile sightings. This probably should have been reason enough for us to set up camp elsewhere, but it wasn’t until dusk began to creep through the trees that I began to consider our situation. We had received words of warning about the “salties” ever since we’d set foot in this country, and truly, tales of their ferocity and penchant for taking wandering toddlers seemed to be on the tip of every Australian’s tongue. At a wildlife sanctuary we had visited along the way, Ryan had come away with a wealth of native animal trivia, including the ominous knowledge that crocs were capable of swimming hundreds of miles inland up freshwater rivers and streams (and incidentally, were immune to HIV). I began to grow uneasy. What if one of us had to run to the toilet in the dark? We were well off the grid out here…there was no electricity, nor had there been a sign of another human presence for miles. Then again, there was a creepy, abandoned hydroelectric plant just down the road…

And then the cane toads came out. Australia’s most infamous invasive specie was introduced in the early part of the 20th century by Queensland sugar cane farmers who had mistakenly put stock in the creature’s rumored ability to catch and consume the native beetles that were devouring their crops. Not only were the farmers dead wrong (the toads proved unable to leap into the cane where the beetles were found), but they were entirely responsible for setting into motion one of Australia’s most devastating ecological phenomena. Cane toads are deadly poisonous during every stage of their life cycle, and have decimated populations of indigenous animals that have figured them for part of the food chain. Since their introduction, they have proliferated throughout the country, and millions of dollars have been earmarked by the government to control their numbers, with every effort proving to be a failure to date. Here at our quiet, dark, Queensland Park Service campsite, there were thousands of these creatures; suddenly materializing in the grass all around us like little, warty apparitions.

Ollie darted out at one near my feet. “Frog! I catch him!” Ryan strong-armed Ollie in the nick of time, lifting him clear off the ground and back into the van. My eyes were as large as saucers in the darkness, and I might have been hyperventilating at that point. Then I started to hear strange noises emanating from the forest surrounding us. Curlews are a long-legged marsh bird whose cry sounds uncannily like a woman weeping, a fact which I was aware of that night in Tully, though it made no difference at the time. We needed to leave, and we needed to leave right then. Wordlessly, Ryan packed up the van, strapped Ollie into his seat, and in seconds we were off. We spent the remainder of that dreadful night forty miles away in a caravan park in Mission Beach.

Agile wallaby in the Tyto Wetlands, Queensland
Spotting wallabies in the Tyto Wetlands

In the massive Tyto wetlands outside Ingham, we came face to face with hundreds of grazing Agile Wallabies, and Oliver was equally intrigued by the joeys in their mothers’ pouches as they appeared to be by our toddler in a child-carrier backpack. At Wallaman Falls, the highest in Australia, we braved the humidity and slid down 900 feet via a winding path through the bush to the base of the falls. In Paluma Range National Park, we were so bewitched by the clear mineral pools that we skinny-dipped the afternoon away and kept an eye to the shallows for platypus foraging along the banks.

So much of Queensland’s warm, wet, rough and romantic appeal lay along its unsealed roads and random rainforest hikes, but there was also the more commercial pursuits one could indulge oneself in, and we figured, if we were going to follow the crowds for once, we would follow them out into the Whitsunday Islands. Airlie Beach smacked of the same hedonistic ambiance as Cairns, and signs throughout town advertised stand-by rates for two-day booze cruises that promised to take in all the sites. We opted for something more akin to a water taxi, and were genuinely impressed by Whitehaven Beach’s signature vanilla-sand swirls against an ultramarine tide. We passed a very awkward night in the gaudy grounds of the disneylandish Daydream Island, but the following morning spent at the helm of the resort’s rented Hobie catamaran made the entire experience worthwhile. Sailing the Whitsundays could be checked off the list.

The spectacular Carnarvon Gorge was the last remote leg of our travels in Queensland, and to reach it, we trekked far into the Great Dividing Range that cleaves Australia’s eastern coastal region from the vast expanse of bone-dry hinterlands. The 600 foot high gorge is famous for its centuries-old Aboriginal rock art, and all along the ten mile hike, various detours led us into water-sculpted canyons, mossy culverts, and crevasses that opened into ecological microcosms that had spent an eternity of time hidden behind curtains of stone.

We skipped through Brisbane’s balmy South Bank riverfront in the blink of an eye and paused for an evening over a plate of Shanghai soup dumplings on Little Stanley Street. In the first week of May, Ollie and I counted the Grey Nurse Sharks that resided at the Sunshine Coast’s Underwater World and doled out cracked corn to kangaroos at Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo. Ryan was showing the first signs of a major gastrointestinal illness and was forced to sit out the fun for a day or so. A month later, and only after all three of us had cross-contaminated each other, we would learn he had picked up cryptosporidium from a contaminated water supply.

Surfer's Paradise
Surfer's Paradise

Queensland’s bright lights focused to a point on the Gold Coast, and by day, we took refuge from the crowds along the southern beaches. In the quiet hamlets of Burleigh Heads and Coolangatta, we watched surfers ride the legendary break at Snapper Rocks. As Ollie dug holes in the sand that he insisted would lead him back to China, I pondered the presence of an undertow beneath the whitewash of the receding waves. Beyond, north, back the way we had come, the silhouette of Surfer’s Paradise hung like a pendant on the horizon; the strange, dark buildings standing in relief against a waning day. Daintree’s Cape Tribulation beach was figuratively millions of miles away from where we stood, a month later, in the glow of Australia’s most ostentatious coastline. In the morning, we were gone.

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