Monday, March 12, 2007

South again

After a night in Chillagoe at the Observatory Ecolodge, I headed out to the coast. Stopped at the Australian Coffee Centre at Mareeba for a tour of the plantations and a couple of espressos. It was raining here, the first rain I'd seen in a month or so. Then on to Kuranda, the Barron Falls (hidden in the mist), a very wet rainforest walk, and a night stop in Cairns, in a backpackers, not my tent. The last part of the drive was down the escarpment from the Atherton Tablelands in pouring rain and heavy traffic, a complete contrast to earlier in the trip where I passed about one car an hour!

Barron Falls, near Kuranda. Definitely rainforest!

Wallaman Falls, inland of Ingham. The single drop is nearly 300m. Saw two Cassowaries on the drive in - as big as emus but very shy.

Stopped the next night at Dungeness, just across the water from Hinchinbrook Island. In the morning there was a tree frog waiting outside my room.

A 5km long jetty at Lucinda, near Dungeness. It's used to load sugar onto large bulk carriers for shipping anywhere in the world.

The last night was back in the tent, at Horseshoe Bay near Bowen.

Apart from the all year round tourist frenzy that is Cairns, the summer is amazingly quiet for travelling around north Queensland. People assume it's too hot or wet and stay away, meaning the camp grounds are quiet, the roads empty and tours, most of which are still running, are in small groups. I covered 2483km, and used 11.1L/100km. Sleeping in a tent for 6 out of 8 nights meant that fuel was the greatest expense, followed by tours and then food. And the best bit? There's more to see!

Chillagoe part II

Near the caves is this large limestone boulder, seemingly perched above the walking track. The limestone is very hard (in fact some of it appears to have been metamorphosed into marble) and weathers into fantastic shapes.

Chillagoe used to have a copper-lead-zinc smelter until the forties or fifties. The remains are now a tourist attraction, but it's best not to get too close, due to crumbling brickwork and heavy metal contamination. Half the site is built on slag!

Did I mention the crumbling brickwork?

Chillagoe Caves

The limestone at Chillagoe is Devonian, about 400 million years old and far older than most limestone deposits. It's formed from shells, primitive Rugose corals and crinoids, and when fresh is a blueish colour. The caves themselves are far younger, but still probably several million years old. The stalactites and stalagmites grow slowly in a dry climate, and many are several metres long.

Three caves are open for guided tours, and I visited all three over two days. Lots of opportunities for playing with long exposure photography!

Undara to Chillagoe

While at Undara I talked to a couple who'd been on the road about two years, and had seen most of Australia. They recommended visiting Chillagoe, a small town a day north of Undara, famous for limestone caves. More geology!

I took what looked on the map to be the most direct route, only about 50km of unsealed road between My Garnet and Lappa. This track followed an old railway line, ripped up in the fifties. The road was quite flat, curving gently around hills, through cuttings and along embankments. Great views from a saddle above Mt Garnet, and miles from anyone and anywhere. It was easy driving, but rocks and ruts meant it was definitely for 4WDs only. A river crossing about halfway was the only tricky bit, with water half a metre deep and a sandy bottom.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Undara part II

The road from Charters Towers north to Undara is pretty featureless. If you were dropped off just about anywhere on the route, you wouldn't be able to tell where you were. One stretch of about 100km was just trees, grass, termite mounds, and a narrow, one lane sealed road. Numerous oncoming 4-trailer road trains ensured alertness, though. These guys do not swerve off the sealed bit - you do!

The first evening at Undara, I went out to one of the lava tubes, where roosting bats emerge at dusk to catch insects. The photo was taken in almost complete darkness, although that never bothered the bats. They fly so close to your face that you feel the wind from their wings. On the trees around the tube mouth, tree pythons curl around branches, ready to catch dinner.

A caved-in section of lava tube, with a pocket of rainforest sheltering from the heat of day.

The dark line shows the track of a collapsed lava tube, with wetter forest growing in the trough.

Undara lodge hides in the bush. Seen here from a granite bluff behind the camp. It's a great place, with restaurant, bar, and accommodation in converted railway carriages, permanent tents or people's own tents and caravans. It can pack in around 400 people, but when I was there, they had less than ten. Everyone stays away in summer, even though it never got over 35!


How does a geologist decide where to go for a holiday? He just looks at a geological map for something unusual, a type of rock different from the usual sandstones that Australia's made of. Granite, for example, is hard and so weathers slowly and is left sticking up after the sandstones have disappeared. Many of the headlands and islands along the coast are granite, or volcanic.

Undara, a volcanic area about 700km north of Moranbah, is world famous for its lava tubes. Lava erupted here less than 200,000 years ago, an eyeblink in Australia's billion year old landscape. Undara's lava didn't explode into the air like many volcanoes, because it contained less dissolved gas. Instead it flowed like water, flooding across the landscape and swirling around hills of 300 million year old granite, until it reached a river 160km away. The lava flowed through a network of tubes which kept it warm - it cooled only 1 degree per 10km. Once the eruptions stopped, the tubes were left empty, much as they are today.

The roof has collapsed in some sections, creating cool, damp pockets of rainforest in the hot, dry highlands. Because the lava flowed away, the volcanoes themselves are fairly flat, and are known as shield volcanoes. Much easier to climb than some of New Zealand's monsters!

Getting to Undara was a two day drive. I went north from Moranbah via some dirt roads, and found an old town called Mt Coolon. Before the Depression, Mt Coolon was a thriving gold mining town with a population of over 2500. Now only 50 or so hardy souls live there - it was 43 degrees when I got there! The remains of an old gold smelter dominate the town - an old chimney and rusted boilers and cogs lie to one side. I wandered around, before ducking into the cool, dark pub (also c.1920s) for rehydration and information on the town. It's less than two hours from Moranbah, so I'll definitely go back one day and poke around some more.

After Mt Coolon it was out to the sealed roads, and north to Charters Towers. CT is also an old mining town, but it's also a farming centre and so hasn't shrivelled up like Mt Coolon. A good polace to pitch the tent for a night. Right below the fruit bats' favourite tree, it turned out!

Ruins at Mt Coolon

Thunderstorm east of Charters Towers

Remains of a chimney on the hill above Charters Towers. It was destroyed during WW2, as it was considered a hazard to aviation.