Monday, March 9, 2009

Enjoying the exotic and unexplored North: a home away from home

from 3/9/2009

ODO 84500

It's been so long, I know. I have a lot of ground to cover (about four thousand kms in fact!), so don't expect all the details! I can claim at least that I have kept on top of the photos (sorting, resizing etc, not as much uploading), which is the most tedious aspect of the story, so you'll have to put up with the fact that I'm content with my effort.

As I write I am sitting in the Nerada tea plantation visitor's centre. Can you believe I ordered a pot to sit out the rain? It's insane! It's so dry up here, and with nothing forecast or expected, especially not on the western side of the range... the plan today was to ride all the roads, all of them, in the area, so the bike is unpacked and I was rearing to go until water interrupted my breakfast (not that that was a shame).

The area you are probably wondering!? The Atherton Tablelands, Far North Queensland - just up the hill from Cairns. And by 'just up the hill', I mean at the top of the road I was planning on riding first thing this morning. The road I ascended last thing yesterday, which even with full touring gear left my tyres looking like I've just been to Phillip Island. And I was taking it easy, believe me! The road is the Gillies, and it is nuts. Look it up.

The tablelands here are a great spot - tropical weather (although it should be drier at this time of year...), yet temperate, especially compared to the coast. A very rich (volcanic/clay) soil means a diverse range of specialty crops like tea and coffee, and a range of veges - as well as the usual cane and the odd banana.

I spent all of yesterday afternoon wandering around the Coffee Works coffee museum/cafe/tastery/roasters/gift shop, and thanks to their re-entry policy will be back again soon! (Especially if the sky takes to falling in.) It's possibly the most awesome place ever, and by a long way the best tourist destination I've ever been. Nothing beats conversing with roasters while sampling 20 different coffees, two liquers, 12 different chocolates, nor the witty commentry of the virtual guide through the mind-boggling collection of espresso and other coffee items. It's something you could only do on holiday though - it would be impossibly to take the time to appreciate it in a more time constrained context.

A couple of days ago I was also pleasantly surprised by a similarly well-run venture called [Pallamina??]. If you look it up you might expect some kitchy tourist destination, like a local dreamworld jungle set - but you go there and find a story, of one cane-grower's dream to build an oasis in the hills, and wander around imagining the improbable experience it would have been in the 1930s when it was in its heyday (with a variety of purposes), and the history of what you are walking through. A big tick from me!

But that's just the touristy stuff - while top experiences, not what I'm normally into. Looking backward down the coast - keeping in mind that the further we go, the worse is my memory - you would be amazed at the number and variety of waterfalls and rainforest sights down the coast just passed. If anything, I have waterfall fatigue - but some of them really are unforgettable. The [Murray Falls] are gorgeous, and the thought of them in full water (now is the dryest time of year for the falls) is inspiring. [Wallaman] near Ingham are Australia's tallest (260 odd m I think), but it was impossible to capture the fullness of that experience on film. The roads to these are all typically tight and twisty, well tarred (if occasionally bumpy) and marred only by traffic. Bloody traffic.

Townsville was an interesting experience, though not what I might have expected. Initially I was amazed at its size - 170,000 people is a few maybe, but riding into town and seing a CBD actually comprising of highrises, and feeling like the interior of a (small) city... unexpected. The giant hill which rises out of nowhere - the CBD is at its base - is impressive to look at, and more impressive to climb (by bike of course - but watch out as most of the traffic has opted for the pedestrian method). Something so tall, and steep, isolated from an otherwise flat township... they have strange mountains up here in North Queensland, they really rise up out of nothingness - and it does make for a spectacle.

Saturday I was meant to get up, go for a walk and wander in to check out townsville. The walk took forever (in my defence, it was 17km long - and included two [dips in the creek]), and it was early afternoon by the time I was riding into town. The bike was handling very, very strangely however - completely flat front tyre. A stop at the servo only served to confirm that my valve was leaking profusely from all over. With a bit of luck, the nearest bike shop had the team sitting out the back with knockoffs in hand. And with a bit more luck, they agreed to have a look at it. Unfortunately for them, doing so involved exploding my valve stem out of my rim - they didn't have much choice at that stage but to pull the wheel off and stick in another. A case of beer later I was sitting with a cold one listening to the trash that a Townsville bike shop talk about of a Satdy arvo. Not what I had expected - but one of the gems you experience being on the road.

Not much to write about - not unless I'm going to make some great story about them - but these gems have been the best bit so far. Like John the barber in Bowen (great little town - but so proud that the film Australia was shot there you'd think they had nothing else to offer), John the biker from Melbourne, doing what I am on his KLR250 (who just left here for the NT), or Hiroshi the 'retired' electronics goods business owner, trying to escape it all - living at the furthest practicable point from Brisbane. The crew at the Archer - the pub at Rockhampton with $5 camping out the back, $2 all-you-can eat on Sunday (though you have to put up with the karaoke) and a motley crew of owners/kids/cousins and friends who hang around irrespective of whether it's open.

In another category alltogether, the platypus I saw early one morning in Eungella (and an awesome road to the park - short, sweet and dodgy as all hell. Just as you might expect when you confront [the ridge at the end of the valley] on its approach). Or the [pool at the end of the Wheel of Fire walk] in Finch-Hatton gorge down the bottom - and it's not unreasonable to expect it all to yourself like I had. [The view of Rockhampton from the hill opposite Mt Archer] (though I have to apologise for not having a good shot), or the [birds] that don't seem to mind you walking through their home - or riding, in the case of the range of huge birds of prey that circle the canefields. [The view towards Cardwell and Hinchinbrook Island] - believe me, and not that crappy photo, that you can't understand how beautiful it is even when you're sitting before it. Possibly the most beautiful lookout I'm yet to find.

The trip north of Brisbane was initially uninspiring. The roads were neither picturesque nor too much fun, and the Sunshine Coast proved a hole completely devoid of character, and largely devoid of liveliness. Wanting to push on, I found myself contemplating a conundrum. I was wondering what I was doing - just covering kilometres - yet wasting time taking detours trying to rectify that, and not really getting anywhere. A few nice experiences - wild horses wandering past my tent by the road in a cleared pine forest - were intersperced among general broody.

Bundaberg provide a bit of a turning point - not that much changed. I'd gotten into town - and wasted my chance to do the Bundy Rum distillery tour trying to keep you guys in the loop. I could do it in the morning.... but I need to make better time, and I was always 50/50 on spending the cash. Sitting in the campground talking to an old dude - called John (no, I am not creating some weird schizophrenic dream here, these people really are all called John) - about taking the time... He's the first person to express doubt - he liked what I was doing, but when he heard how long I had and decided he 'does not envy me at all'! The years he has spent on the road are a different timeframe to what I have available, and what I 'need' and want to do with it. But thinking about it, what I had experienced had been as he was telling me I would - covering kms, trying to experience where I've been but largely just wasting time. So I sat, and I thought.

The only real change was the money - Fuck the Money. I redid my budget, and as little as I want to spend all that I have, it is there to be spent, and I'm better off doing so and just earning it again in the future. What I figured is that I'm not spending the scant savings I have now, but spending money which I will need to save in the future. And I don't know about you, but I have no apprehension about simply saving money. I do it as simply as it sounds - I don't appreciate the trouble many seem to experience. Don't get me wrong - I still have relatively little to live six months off (plus some for a bond etc. in Melbourne...), but hell, I have enough to do the bloody Bundy tour! The new critereon has become not 'can I avoid spending it', but 'will it be worthwhile to spend next year's money on it'.

Probably the more significant change has been in the mindset of what I opt to do, than the calculation of the cost. The time for the tour (I didn't leave town til after 12 - compared to leaving camp at around 7:30) was probably the biggest factor. But if you don't make the time, there's no point doing it at all. Yes, I am still pressed for time... but frankly, I don't need to do everything. Sunshine Coast? - I only did it because I felt I should, because it's there. I was planning on doing Carnarvon Gorge, but looking at the figures, it would have been two days travel just to get there and back, let alone time spent there. Bugger the bastard - I can do it next time around. Talking to John on the KLR, this is the hardest part of travelling, at least the way we are - deciding not to do things. But in order to do anything at all, it is a decision that needs to be made.

That afternoon I had decided to camp near Monto - a paltry 150km away, but it suited me to (and it was free - otherwise known as stress-free). Having time to do what I wanted to, rather than the pressure to do it all, was good - and the riding was just what the doctor ordered. Monto is inland, on the range - away from the highway, and all that mundane shit that makes up places like the Sunshine Coast. And frankly, I grew up by the beach, what do I care about seeing the coast? (Especially keeping in mind taking the coastal route rarely actually visits the coast.) The road up the hill was a bit too straight, but the country up there is a tourer's tonic - open forest, grassy plains, cattle, country towns... (Monto, if anything, was a little too country: everything except the pub - supermarkets included - shuts by 12:30 on a Saturday. The town was empty, eerily silent - and it wasn't that small either.) Fresh air, local traffic and whatever pace you choose. That arvo and the next morning I took good advantage of Cania Gorge (though old dude John had told me not to waste my time on 'just a bunch of rocks', the limits of his advice proved welcome), an absolutely beautiful place which fit the bill perfectly - an open eucalypt wood through the valley, and tall sandstone walls with (dry) creeks and walking tracks either side. The good stuff - and amazingly homely, well beyond the similarities to the NSW tableland environment I'm used to.

So since then the travelling has been quite good, and I'm getting better at everything. I've been trying to get through massive indecision now, though - I've budgetted a week's time up here, and have had no real direction about what to do with it, merely a million similar ideas. Anyway, I've written a flexilist to keep me busy, and set about doing whatever comes along.

On the topic of which - the sun has come out. : )

[Final note: I have some photos from Brisbane which I should link to from here...
Only I haven't uploaded any of them yet. That's what all the square brackets are for, to remind me to link...]


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