I wond’r if we have enough petrol to make it to the next town? Petrol scares and kayaking with crocodiles en route to Darwin

Our first days drive from Cairns to the nice little historical town of Croydon was a rather sophisticated affair by our standards, seeing us drop past Coffee Works in Mareeba, the region that grows 80 % of Australia’s coffee. There we took the opportunity to sample some cold brew nitro – silky smooth icy cold black coffee that tricks your tastebuds into thinking it’s been sweetened and has milk added, by being poured from a tap with the help of Nitrogen, similar to beers like Guinness, mmmm…

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Settling back into outback life

The next days travels took us past Normanton, where we checked out the impressively large tourist information centre that reminded us more of a museum, staffed by local Aboriginals with great local knowledge. Before heading off we couldn’t resist taking some obligatory photos with ‘Krys the Savannah King’ – a massive life-size replica of the largest Saltwater Crocodile ever caught. It was hunted and killed in 1957 by Krystina Pawlowski, a Polish crocodile hunter who amazingly switched sides and became an outspoken crocodile conservationist in her later life! That evening we camped in a sunny show ground with plenty of space for a spot of badminton – a great way to stretch our stiff legs after a long days drive 🙂

The following few days saw things become even more desolate, with towns growing further apart and roads deserted, except for the occasional monstrous road trains we overtook once having plucked up the courage!

Surprisingly we didn’t often know where we were headed each night, as the maps hadn’t finished downloading on the WikiCamps app (Australia’s campers bible) and we rarely had any signal. Amusingly this meant all we had to go on was distance and direction, while trying to home our flashing blue dot in on a campsite, shown on a blank background. It certainly provided some entertainment at the end of tedious afternoons full of monotonous driving!

A benefit to being in the wilderness of the Outback however was the enormity of the nights sky; with no light pollution, the infinite twinkling stars that flooded the sky above us was truly spellbinding.

Despite the emptiness of our surroundings, there were usually things to see along the way to reward us for driving these long lonely roads. A couple of notable examples were the never ending magnetic termite mounds that stretch out into the horizon (so called as they’re always aligned North to reduce heat from the sun) and the brilliant Royal Flying Doctors Museum in the lesser known town of Cloncurry. John Flynn is famous for setting up the innovative Royal Flying Doctors Service back in 1928, bringing much needed medical help to the remote towns of the Outback. The impressive museum features three floors full of fascinating history and enthralling stories, brought to life through a variety of galleries, exhibits and film.

Almost running out of petrol, en route to Katherine

With such large distances between anywhere, comes an element of risk. We’d done well so far to always fill up with fuel when having the chance, but unfortunately forgot while wrapped up in the awesomeness of the museum. We only noticed we were running on empty once half way to the next town, so couldn’t turn back. The next hour was therefore spent in nervous silence, as Joella and I struggled to take our eyes from the petrol gauge, willing the car to keep going. Thankfully our seemingly never-ending tank did us proud, and we made it to the forecourt of BP in Mount Isa, wearing the biggest Cheshire Cat smiles imaginable! To prevent a similar occurrence in the future, I taped a reminder to the steering wheel so it wouldn’t happen again.

After spending a night in Camooweal – the last Queensland town before the Northern Territory border, we intended to hit Tennant Creek the following day and explore the surrounding area. But following a friendly chat with the groundsman of the campsite, our plans soon changed. He recommended avoiding Tennant Creek due to the seeming collapse of the community (petty and violent crime among parts of the Aboriginal population continues to grow). Instead we headed to Banka Banka: A cattle station full of cowboy charm, featuring fire pits, dangerous bulls and camels!

Now a day ahead of schedule, we were nearing true civilisation once again; in the form of Katherine – the town “where the outback meets the tropics”. But before arriving, we couldn’t resist stopping in past the famous Daly Waters Pub for a quick feed. The old world establishment (by Australian standards) is as you’d expect from an Outback pub, but with one significant difference; there’s random stuff hanging from every inch of the ceiling and walls. As the story goes, this peculiar ritual originally started with a bunch of bras being hung up by a bus load of women, who’d lost a bet with their driver! While pretty much draped in lingerie and tucking into our steak pies, we conveniently used the free wifi to book some kayaking the next day, to explore some nearby gorges…



Attempting to avoid crocodiles and snakes in Nitmiluk Gorge

After a very early start the next day, we eventually arrived at the jetty and climbed aboard the boat that shuttled us through the first gorge. During our briefing en route, we were surprisingly advised the signs we’d spied earlier were in fact correct and there are crocs about!

With relief, we learned these are of the fresh water variety, and have brittle jaws that prevent them from tackling larger prey like humans, although can still bite if provoked. Apparently, we can be sure there are no dangerous Salt Water Crocs present from the annual floods, through the use of three methods: 1) Low level helicopter surveys during the day, 2) Night time boat inspections using search lights to look out for reflections from their eyes, and 3) Traps. Although reassuring to a point, these practices don’t sound very scientific or entirely foolproof :-/

Once we’d arrived at the end of the first gorge, we picked up our double kayak and began exploring the second, then third gorge beyond. Kayaking proved to be a fantastic way to witness the beauty of these natural geological formations in such tranquil surroundings, while they slowly changed colour from reds to oranges as the sun rose higher in the sky. Following multiple foul mouthed tirades from me, Joella can confirm it did prove difficult finding a rhythm while paddling together, but we eventually got the hang of it. On our return leg through the first gorge, we were pleasantly rewarded to a double sighting of Freshwater Crocodiles, thankfully from the safety of the boat 🙂

That evening we treated ourselves to a stay in the more expensive campsite within Nitmiluk National Park, allowing us to fit in a longer trek the next day without any driving beforehand. We opted for the charmingly sounding ‘Butterfly Gorge Trail’ that proved to be full of diverse surroundings; first we began with a hike up to a scenic viewpoint of the first gorge below, followed by trails through arid landscape then finally down into a gorge enclosing luscious rainforest.

During this last section through the thicker undergrowth I heard an ominous rustling sound that led me to immediately scream: “RUN, THERE’S A SNAKE!” despite failing to see anything that resembled a threat. We then embarrassingly spent 10 minutes trying to decide whether to proceed or turn back. It was only until some fellow hikers casually strolled past without any sort of issue, that we decided to continue, feeling a little stupid in the process! Thankfully our bravery was eventually paid off, with a beautiful waterside view of the second gorge, appropriately surrounded by fluttering butterflies.

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Next stop: Darwin, to visit my Cousin Jess and her fiancé Ben!

I wond’r how much it’ll cost to fix our car? Costly adventures exploring the Daintree Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef in Cairns

Arriving in Cairns was a significant milestone on our Australian Odyssey – marking the completion of our drive North up the East coast. Although Queensland’s fifth biggest city isn’t anything to write home about, that really isn’t an issue considering Cairns is famously the gateway to both the tropical Daintree Rainforest and the worlds largest single structure made from living organisms: the Great Barrier Reef!

We’d fortunately lined up a housesit on the outer edges of town that perfectly matched our dates, featuring an outdoor swimming pool, cinema room, pool table and an expansive balcony looking out to the surreal rainforested hillside overlooking us. While there we had the fortune of caring for a rather boisterous American Staffy named Bosun, who turned out to be the biggest (and strongest) dog we’d looked after thus far. Although this made me feel like a bad ass gangster, it did mean we weren’t comfortable walking him further afield.

Therefore we opted to go dogless for our first days expedition to Cairns’ impressive Botanical Gardens; where we walked through never ending walkways surrounded by tropical fauna and explored galleries set up in old WWII naval oil tanks, to the exotic soundtrack made by the many colourful birds above us.

Underwater adventures in the Great Barrier Reef

Despite seeing a myriad of stunningly colourful fish off Whitsunday Island the week before, we were keen to spend some more time in warmer waters while we had the chance. Having decided against another expensive tourist package deal, we initially struggled to find availability on a boat that would take us to one of the nearby islands before the weather turned. Eventually however, our relentless efforts proved fruitful and we successfully booked ourselves tickets to Fitzroy Island, on board the aptly named 1,000 bhp ‘Thunderbolt’ high speed reef boat!

Even with the additional time for the Captain to complete a series of doughnuts to show off the power of his impressive vessel, we made it to Fitzroy Island in little over half an hour. After disappointingly finding out the Turtle Sanctuary tour was fully booked, we set off along the rocky pathway to Nudey Beach, which has recently been voted the best in Australia. Wanting to make the most of our time, we briskly and carefully changed into our swimmers (it’s strictly NOT a nudist beach despite its name suggesting otherwise) but stopped short of putting our snorkel gear on after realising the conditions; to say the water was choppy would be an understatement :-/

So, with a glimmer of hope that the other side of the Island would be sheltered from the prevailing winds, we headed back in the direction of Welcome Bay from where we’d arrived. Just as we hoped, the water was far calmer, so we continued up the beach to the famous reefs that surround ‘Bird Rock’ – a prominent boulder so named because of the large quantities of bird poo that cover it like icing on a cake (it even glows in the moonlight apparently)!

Almost immediately on entering the water — the reef is handily just metres from the beach — we were greeted by a welcome party of assorted fish that grew larger as we snorkelled further out, consisting of Parrotfish, Wrasse, Surgeon Fish and Butterfly Fish. Although we were truly entranced by the cloud of colours that surrounded us (despite the murky waters due to the choppy waters), we secretly wished for the opportunity to meet a Green Turtle in its natural environment. You can therefore guess our astonishment and joy, as a turtle calmly paddled past! We couldn’t resist following at a distance, mesmerised at the beauty of how gracefully such a large animal moves from rock to rock, grazing on the sea grass and algae. Although we planned to do a walk or two around the island, we ended up far happier spending our entire time underwater.

Rush hour in the Daintree Rainforest

Understandably, given the impressive size of the Daintree Rainforest (almost 500 sq miles) there’s a plethora of walks and trails to choose from, and as per usual we were struggling to decide on which to attempt while keeping in mind the four hour return journey from Cairns. Eventually we settled upon Mossman Gorge, as it had good reviews, no entrance fees and meant we weren’t going to need to take the ferry further North.

After some beautiful driving along relentless hairpins that hugged the cliff edge with the beaches below, we arrived at the Centre. There we fought with our conscience, while considering whether to ignore signage requesting visitors pay $10 per person for shuttle buses to the beginning of the trails. After completing the pleasant 20 min walk, we were glad with our decision; especially considering at no point did we go through any Aboriginal settlements, which was a key argument for taking the bus.

Unfortunately, once beginning the trails, we realised we’d made a bad decision. Rather than being greeted with spacious, peaceful walkways surrounded by nature, we instead found ourselves feeling like we were on the London Underground: shuffling along narrow paths, constantly queued up behind large groups of tourists almost the entire time :-/ Despite this, we made the most of our time there and completed the full Rainforest Circuit Track that did have some picturesque streams and pools, but were ultimately glad to leave the hordes behind.

Nursing a poorly car back to full health

Rather than making a speedy getaway, we did the complete opposite: While driving back to Cairns, our trusty steed suddenly lost all power, requiring us to swiftly pull over before coming to a complete halt in the middle of the road. Fortunately we made it, just, to a garage in the nearby town of Mossman. After taking a look, the mechanic reckoned the transmission had gone, and would need to tow us back to Cairns where they’d have the parts and could fix automatics. His initial estimate was $2,500 🙁

The next day we played a spot of pool, trying to take our mind of things, as we waited for a phone call from the garage to confirm the damage and when they’d be able to get it done; we were on a tight schedule needing to get back to Sydney at the beginning of August for a house sitting assignment, and still had over 8,000 km to go. Hating the suspense, I gave the garage a call and we immediately breathed a sigh of relief – the work was almost complete and was going to cost just $650; phew!

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Once we’d replenished our food supplies — consisting mostly of tinned cans — we set off once again towards the dusty world of the Outback, on our way to Darwin…

I wond’r if they’ll let me steer the boat? R&R time in Brisbane, followed by seaward voyages en route to Cairns

Despite thoroughly enjoying our rough and ready adventure to Lightning Ridge in the Outback of New South Wales, we were ready to return back to the creature comforts of civilisation. It was fortunate therefore, that Joella had conveniently lined us up with a house sit in the central ‘burbs of Brisbane – Queensland’s cosmopolitan capital 🙂

As I did my best to settle back into the frantic ways of city driving – attempting to avoid cruising at 110 km p/h or failing to stop at sudden red lights, we arrived outside what would be our home for the next week. Although extremely close to the CBD, rather than finding a small ‘unit’ (flat), we were instead greeted by a substantially sized house sat upon stilts, with a massive garage nestled underneath. Once inside, we were immediately welcomed by two adorably fluffy black cats by the names of Boo and Cece, whom we later found out seemed to be big Cisqo fans much to our amusement! Pleasantly, the interior was equally as nice as its exterior, and there was even a futuristic robot cat litter tray that looked like it had come straight from NASA’s R&D department. It was all quite a contrast to sleeping in prehistoric static caravans or in the back of our car!

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Exploring Brisbane

Conveniently we were just a 15 minute walk from Brisbane’s famous South Bank, bursting with a variety of eclectic things to do and see; including a surreal street beach, fascinating museums, striking galleries, lush parks, happening markets, impressive vegetable gardens and even a huge pagoda. Not surprisingly, we spent most days wandering through the maze of walk ways (and cycle lanes by accident), exploring everything this part of town had to offer. We especially enjoyed learning about Australia’s prehistoric past and amazingly unique wildlife in the Museum of Queensland; although I probably spent a little too long in the gift shop, much to Joella’s frustration…

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However, it wasn’t just the South Bank that got our attention; we made sure to check out other areas of town too, including Brisbane’s smart CBD peppered with contemporary sculptures, as well as the hipster haunts of Fortitude Valley and New Farm. The Town Hall in the centre was an impressive building that housed a delightful museum detailing Brisbane’s history, including the many devastating floods that have occurred periodically throughout the last 150 years (hence the houses on stilts). While in the alternative neighbourhoods we couldn’t avoid unintentionally blending in by grabbing an overpriced caffeine fix, then spending our arvo browsing secondhand bookshops and commenting on street art in the various laneways.

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On our last evening we climbed aboard the free CityHopper for a scenic cruise up Brisbane River, en route to check out the monthly comedy show at Brisbane’s impressively large and industrial arts venue; The Power House. The improv show was mediocre overall, but definitely worth our efforts considering the free entry and fun, lively atmosphere. Before turning in for the night, we couldn’t resist grabbing a quick drink at the quirky ‘Big Little House’; an old style, multi terraced bar, sat atop a set of four comically large stilts.

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Driving North

Our next house sit was scheduled to be in Queensland’s tropical city of Cairns later in June,  giving us six days to drive up, in amongst some sightseeing and adventures of course! Having heard good things about the rather well to do beach town of Noosa, we settled upon there as our first stop North up the coast. Expecting something along the lines of Byron Bay, we were disappointingly greeted with a smaller, busier version that unfortunately didn’t grab us like the hippy surf town did (although the cloudy weather probably didn’t help). So after a quick walk along the beach and main strip, taking in the various art galleries and boutique shops, we were ready to skedaddle out of there. Not wanting to pay over $40 at a caravan park for what equates to little more than a parking space, we conveniently discovered that the nearby Sea Scouts offer their facilities for a fraction of the price, so we headed there for the night.

That evening we flicked through the Lonely Planet “Australia’s best trips” book that Joella’s family had kindly got us, for destination inspiration (check me out – I’m a poet and didn’t know it!). After browsing through the various road trips featuring jaw-dropping photos, we decided upon the strangely named town of 1770 for our next days drive. But beforehand, we couldn’t miss out on a couple of capers en route…

First was the the opportunity to feed some wild dolphins at the Barnacle Dolphin Centre in Tin Can Bay. Unfortunately, despite a very early departure long before the sun had risen, we arrived just a little too late, and had to make do with spectating instead, which was amazing none the less given how close the dolphins came in.

Our second stop involved spending time in Maryborough; a small town mostly famous for being the birthplace of P.L. Travers – the writer of Mary Poppins! There we enjoyed learning about its colourful history (e.g. it was home to Australia’s only ever outbreak of pneumonic plague), while completing a self guided walk featuring lots of lovely bronze sculptures, wall murals and subtle nods to its links with the world famous English nanny.

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As was becoming a habit, we hadn’t decided upon accommodation until we were an hour or so away. Although our original idea of a beachside getaway for the night did sound great, the opportunity to stay at a kangaroo sanctuary ultimately won us over! We were immediately rewarded for our decision, as a mob of adult and baby kangaroos jumped past perfectly on cue, to signal our arrival 🙂 The Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary turned out to be fantastically sociable too, as we found ourselves still up, chatting loudly to the other international guests well past the 10pm noise curfew – oops! In the morning we got talking to a group of Irish girls travelling South, which ultimately led us to changing our travel plans. So, rather than having a relaxing walk along 1770 beach and a leisurely days drive, we instead found ourselves cruising full pelt in the direction of Airlie Beach – gateway to the world renowned beauty spot of the Whitsunday Islands…

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Sailing the Whitsundays

During the nine hour drive we continued to perfect our team skills; with Joella juggling iPhones and iPads researching boat cruises, while I kept my eyes on the road. By lunch time Joella had everything lined up for the next day: rather than being crammed aboard a noisy speedboat with 60 other tourists, we were to be sailing on Providence V – a classic 62-ft gaff-rigged schooner, with a far more intimate group size of 12. After even more driving that gradually became more tiring as day turned into night, we eventually arrived in the touristy town of Airlie Beach, where we picked up supplies and headed to the nearby Flametree campsite for an early night.

Bleary eyed but wide awake with excitement after a very early start to the day, we soon found ourselves walking along the harbour front as the sun began to rise, attempting to spot our vessel while ignoring the ominous clouds rolling in. Once our fellow sailors had arrived, we were led along the marina’s maze of creaking wooden jetties to Providence V, which pleasantly turned out to be just as gorgeous as she was in the pictures online (guys – I’m talking about a boat..). As most of the crew readied things for departure, a fellow Scot named Andy gave us our safety briefing and talked us through the days itinerary, with the help of some weather beaten nautical maps that wouldn’t look out of place in a Pirates of the Caribbean film.

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Once I’d been given the chance to put my sailing qualifications to good use (merely pulling a rope rather then touching the tiller), we begun our voyage with a little help from the motor to maximise our speed, together with an escort of Spinner Dolphins who performed their impressive signature barrel rolls while leaping through the air. The first port of call was to be Whitsunday Island; home of the famous swirly Whitehaven beach. It was refreshingly satisfying heading out to sea, with the ocean spray blasting us while enjoying mugs of warming tea and sugary cake 🙂

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We arrived at the viewpoint overlooking the serene Whitehaven beach just in time to gaze at its beauty and take a few stunning photos, before the blue sky disappeared behind the dark clouds we’d been pretending weren’t there until now. It wasn’t surprising therefore that within 10 minutes of arriving at the dazzlingly white sandy beach below, the heavens opened, resulting in a mad dash back to the boat.

Following a spot of lunch while sailing to a nearby secluded bay, we reluctantly got ourselves ready for snorkelling, even though the gloomy skies made things look more like the North Sea than the outer edges of the Great Barrier Reef! But once we’d taken the plunge we soon forgot about the dreary conditions above, while losing ourselves in the underwater world full of colourful fish below. As the cooler water got the better of us, we waved goodbye to Nemo and friends, then climbed back aboard for our return leg.

A whirlwind tour of Townsville

Our final overnight stop North was to be the mining town of Townsville, pretty much slap bang in between Airlie Beach and our final destination of Cairns. Thanks to putting in the brutal full days drive two days earlier, we had a relatively short three hour drive ahead of us, leaving the rest of the day to stretch our legs and explore the ‘ville…

Once parked up at the fairly central Rowes Bay Holiday Park, we set off on a picturesque walk along the beach fronted esplanade of the Strand, followed by a hard slog up Castle Hill – a large, imposing outcrop of Pink Granite, oddly rising up from the middle of Townsville’s streets. There we found a comfy spot on the hillside, just off from the busier pathways and viewpoints, to enjoy the sky turn a beautifully golden colour as the sun disappeared behind the clouds on the horizon.

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With our thirst and hunger growing, our tastebuds led us to Townsville’s brewery for a tasty tasting paddle, then on to the Herbert for a quick pub feed, before turning in for the night.

Spontaneously, the next day I got us up at the crack of dawn to enjoy an incredible sunrise over the Coral Sea, framed by the surrounding palm trees. As the sun rose higher, we reluctantly dragged ourselves away from the heavenly view before us, to hit the road North once again, for our next house sit in the tropical city of Cairns!