Over the next few weeks, as Karen and I cycled up the coast of central Queensland, a series of incidents and meetings occurred that were either amazingly coincidental, or set up coincidences that would occur sometime in the near future. The first happened the day after we arrived back from Fraser Island.
After five days of hiking, Karen and I both needed a rest day to recharge our batteries, wash our clothes and prepare for the next few days of cycling. We lazed around in the morning, said hi again to Bill and Lois, and tried to stay out of the wind. We were just about to go shopping for laundry powder and lunch when, on the spur of the moment, Karen decided to ring Ian aboard Dockitt Eddy to find out where he was and what he was doing.
We wandered over to a pay phone near the caravan park office, fed some coins into the machine and discovered that Ian and Dockitt Eddy were moored in the Urangan marina, less than three hundred metres away. If we had only yelled instead of using the phone, Ian would have still heard us and we could have saved ourselves a dollar! We walked down to the boat, met Brad, his crew, and were soon talking to Ian face-to-face as he described to a disappointed Karen his plan to skip the Whitsundays and leave the boat moored at Urangan while he returned to Sydney. He would return later during the whale watching season, but unfortunately we would be long gone by then. Over a cup of coffee we swapped travel stories and agreed to meet at the Boat Club for dinner. Karen cheered up a little when we managed to borrow some washing liquid from Ian for our afternoon laundry.
Deciding that shopping together again was too great a risk to take, marriage-wise, I rode the ten kilometres round trip to Torquay alone to withdraw some money from the bank and to buy food for lunch while Karen stayed behind to do our washing. Although shopping alone probably helped to save our marriage, it is also fraught with problems. I had to remove all the panniers from my bike, along with anything else that was not bolted on, such as the pump, water-bottles and computer. At the shop, the bike had to be chained to an immovable object, with the chain passing through both quick-release wheels as well as the frame. I then had to limit my purchases to whatever could fit into the day-pack I had with me. And cycling home with a pack containing an assortment of bottles and cans that dug into my unprotected back was rather uncomfortable as well. Such were the sacrifices I made in the interest of domestic harmony.
We met Ian and Brad in the Boat Club at 7pm. A couple from Sydney, Lorraine and Ross, who had also sailed up from Sydney and whom Ian had met at the marina, soon joined us. A fifth person at our table was a lady named Helene, who would be giving Ian and Brad a lift to Brisbane the next day. We dined on typical club fare, Chicken Kiev for me, roast for Karen, with cheesecake for dessert and liberal quantities of beer and red wine during the evening. On stage was possibly the worst singing duo in the history of the world, doing atrocious versions of popular songs, mostly to tape. Only occasionally would they hit a good note or find the right key. Given a choice of staying and listening, or venturing back to our tent in the wind and rain, Karen and I reluctantly chose to stay, hoping a couple of carafes of wine would improve our listening pleasure. They didn't.
The next day we farewelled Bill and Lois and said goodbye to Hervey Bay, cycling to Highway One via Toogoom and a dirt road short-cut to Howard with a lovely following wind. A sheltered table covered in graffiti and situated near the Burrum River where we stopped for morning tea proved highly entertaining. Andrew Eggerling and Karen Putnam had decided that the roof of the shelter was the perfect location to express in writing their undying devotion for each other. I wonder if they are still together.
A thousand passing northbound motorbikes and thirty kilometres of Highway One, with a good shoulder eighty percent of the time, led us to Childers. We had covered eighty one kilometres, our second longest day so far. At the Sugar Bowl caravan park on the north side of town we met our first bicycle tourer, a teacher from Melbourne named Dennis. He was very experienced but did not seem to mind carting extra weight to augment his creature comforts. He not only carried a Trangia stove, the same as us, but he also packed a Gaz burner just so he could make toast! And another gas canister was used to power his light!
Although Karen and I had travelled these roads before, it had been by car and we had been intent on reaching far flung destinations. Now that we had the opportunity to stop along the way, we were intent on seeing as much of the country as possible. To this end, we walked into town after a late lunch and followed a self-guided historical tour which led us up and down the main street past an interesting collection of old buildings and shop-fronts. The Federal Hotel looked inviting, so Karen and I dropped into the public bar for a beer and a chat with a couple of locals. They updated our tour with an interesting mix of recent history, folklore and gossip. We crossed the road to eat at Piggy's, while watching "Gladiators" on a television mounted in the dining room. We would become quite fond of this show during our travels. Sad, isn't it?
The wind that had started three days earlier on Fraser Island showed no sign of abating. I set up our blue groundsheet as a windbreak around two sides of a shelter in the caravan park, and Karen and I huddled behind it later in the evening to update the diary and read, and to decide where we would go tomorrow.
We spoke to Dennis at length the next morning. He was headed west and north through Biggenden, while we had decided to travel east and north to Bundaberg, hoping to arrive in time to catch the last tour of the weekend at the Bundy rum distillery at 1pm. A late start was more than compensated for by another good tailwind. Heaps of bikes passed us in the opposite direction today, and we eventually found out why - a motorbike show outside of Bundaberg. A police booze bus parked right outside the front gate must have been testing a large number of attendees. Inside the gate, a number of bikies lounged about in whatever shade they could find, obviously waiting for the police to leave, or for their own blood alcohol levels to drop below the legal limit.
We rode straight to the Bundy factory and took the tour. I am not sure what our readings would have been afterwards as the tour included complimentary drinks afterwards, a rum with chocolate and coffee liqueur for Karen, and a rum and coke for me.
Elle and I outside the Bundy distillery
The rest of the day quickly degenerated into a farce shortly after riding back into town. We learned that the only supermarket open on this Sunday afternoon was way out in the suburbs, which was a bit of a pain. There followed the usual dramas and arguments associated with shopping and waiting, after which we proceeded to the "Midtown" caravan park, which was even further out of town than the shopping centre! Karen had chosen this park because it was listed as having a campers kitchen, but when we arrived there she immediately began complaining because the park was nowhere near the river and right next to the main road - both of which we knew before we went there! As it turned out, we could not get our tent pegs into the ground despite a good pounding with half a brick, so Karen insisted on a refund and we headed back into town in rapidly fading light. By the time we arrived at the Riverside caravan park, which we knew was on the river (obviously) and only a ten minute walk from the centre of Bundaberg, it was dark, so we had no choice but to stay. We had travelled over seventy kilometres between towns less than sixty kilometres apart.
The park, and our site, was excellent. We set up right next to a covered, well lit table and chairs in a deserted camping area across from the cabins. The constant wind of the past few days died to nothing during dinner. Our luck had suddenly changed, or so we believed. How wrong we were.
Sonia could not do anything right. Her mother, an absolute bitch, stood at the door of their cabin just across from our tent and abused the heck out of her for a quarter of an hour as we prepared to go to sleep. All Sonia wanted to do was go to the toilet, but it was dark and the toilet block was a long way away, especially if you are a scared little girl.
"So just go around the side of the cabin and do it there, Sonia. What do you mean you don't want to? Don't you want to go? Well go then. What are you waiting for? No I will not take you to the toilet block. You are old enough to go by yourself. Just do it there. And don't you go crying because that will not work with me, little lady. You will do what I say, do you hear? I've just about had enough of you today. Just hurry up and go to the toilet. Stop crying!"
At 1am, after Sonia had eventually succumbed to her mother's intimidation and Karen and I had achieved sleep, a calypso band complete with bongos and assorted metal drums began practising next door. At least that it what is sounded like. We were never able to tell whether it was the metal foundry or the slip-yards that began working at that time. Or both.
Our first leg to Noosa had been cycled through areas of high population density. Sydney, the Central Coast, Newcastle, the towns on the north coast of New South Wales, the Gold Coast, Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast all contained large centres less than one day's riding apart. North of Noosa, however, civilisation is spread pretty thin. After Bundaberg there is nothing much until Gladstone. It is a couple of hundred kilometres away and we did not even want to go there! We had called in there once before, and for Gladstone, once is enough. Our next major town would be Rockhampton, about three hundred kilometres north.
From Bundaberg we took some backroads that roughly followed the railway line. This is usually a safe option as train tracks are always built through the flattest country available. A relatively short day of sixty one kilometres took us to the small town of Rosedale, an unremarkable place but memorable to Karen and myself because it provided the best valued tent site we ever paid for anywhere in Australia. The caravan park office was the pub, the Royal Hotel. The camping area was the local oval behind the pub. The amenities block was the oval's pavilion, a long, low structure with a verandah running its entire length. We had tables and chairs on the verandah, a roof over our heads complete with lights, good toilet and shower facilities at either end of the pavilion, and we even had a laundry with a washing machine and heaps of clothes line space out the back. All of this cost us the princely sum of one dollar each! We had dinner in the pub with the money we did not have to spend on accommodation. And next morning, the publican invited us into the pub for a free cup of coffee just before we left!
Karen and our Rosedale campsite
Up until this point in the trip, Karen and I had not experienced any long stretches of bad dirt roads, but all that was about to change. The dirt began after the village of Berajondo about eight kilometres up the road. The next fifteen kilometres were diabolical, with corrugations, piles of gravel, pot-holes, stones, larger rocks and even bull-dust holes to contend with. A grader was attempting to fix the next section of dirt road, but not too successfully. Then came some more bad stuff with a road gang working on that. They warned us that the next section was even worse but they must have been having a lend of us because it was excellent. Hard, smooth clay with very little gravel. The final few kilometres of road prior to the restart of the tar deteriorated again, with many large, sharp stones scattered across the hard-packed surface. About two hundred metres short of the bitumen I hit a small rock at the wrong angle, spitting it about thirty metres like an orange pip, and pinching a tube at the same time. A crowd of about one hundred cows gathered around to watch me repair the flat. It was a relief to reach the tar for the short ride to Highway One and the town of Miriam Vale, where we visited an information centre before checking into the camping ground at the Caltex roadhouse after a day of sixty three kilometres.
Changing a tyre amongst the cows
While we were having dinner - a wonderful concoction of tuna and vegetables cooked by me - Karen and I nodded hello to four people, all dressed in black, as they headed for the roadhouse diner. We had heard and then seen their two Harley Davidsons arrive at the roadhouse earlier in the evening. Each male rider had a female pillion, and they looked like typical tough bikers, with jeans, boots, dark glasses and leather jackets. They had hired a cabin near the table where we had set up our cooking gear for dinner. Later that night, as Karen and I were looking through our bird book, updating our latest sightings, the four leather-clad figures approached.
"Like birds, do you?" asked one of the guys gruffly.
My mind raced. Why were Karen and I wearing identical sloppy-joes, and looking about as fearsome as the Bobbsey Twins? Why were we reading a bird book instead of leafing through a biker mag, or a guns and ammo publication, or a martial arts magazine? Why was I displaying to every Hell's Angel who happened to walk past that I was into the tough and incredibly macho hobby of birdwatching? We are about to get beaten up, I thought.
"Yes, we're birdwatchers," answered Karen, while I attempted an I-only-do-it-to-humour-her smile.
"What have you seen lately?" the biker continued. I thought back to the birds Karen might describe.
"Please don't say Spangled Drongos!" I pleaded telepathically. "Or Fairy Wrens! Try to say something tough, like wedge-tailed eagles." I tried to think back. What had we seen today?
"Today we saw two new birds for us, a couple of finches. The Plum-headed and the Double-barred," explained Karen.
"The Double-bars are cute, aren't they?" asked the biker. "Have you seen any parrots?"
"Just the normal east coast ones, like the Crimson Rosella, Eastern Rosella and Rainbow Lorikeet. Are you interested in birds too?"
"You could say that. I collect and breed Australian parrots. I've got cages and cages of them. Are you headed north?"
"We're on our way up to Cairns."
"We live in Townsville. Drop in and have a look if you like. We might even be able to put you up for the night. Here, I'll give you my phone number." Just when I thought we were safe, Karen dropped a clanger.
"Are you in a gang?" she asked.
I cringed. Sometimes my wife asks the dumbest questions. Brian and his wife Joanne, and their friends Rob and Rob, explained that they were not in a bikie "gang" but in a biker club known as HOG, the Harley Owners Group. We spoke to them some more that night and again the next morning before they left for the run back to Townsville. They would be home by lunchtime. Karen and I would not reach Townsville for almost five more weeks.
Our new hog friends
In the morning we took a photo of the two couples aboard their motorbikes just before we set off for our fifth straight day of riding. A few hours of effort took us to a roadhouse at Benaraby, where we shopped for an extended stay at nearby Lake Awoonga. Because we had spent so much money at his store - thirty two dollars - Karen talked the owner into shouting each of us a cup of tea!
Lake Awoonga is a man-made lake, backed up behind the Awoonga High Dam, which provides the water supply for Gladstone and its industries, particularly its aluminium smelter. The glossy brochures obtained from the information centre in Miriam Vale had shown some nice shots of the lake and the caravan park, and with our legs and nether regions sore from five days and almost three hundred and fifty kilometres of riding from Hervey Bay, Karen and I decided it looked like a great place to stop. In addition, a rest would be our celebration for having just passed two thousand kilometres of cycling.
Luckily, the brochures had not lied! The caravan park was perched atop a sun-drenched plateau, where pied butcher birds, king parrots and blue faced honey-eaters frolicked against a backdrop of majestic mountains rising from the clear, blue waters of the lake.
Campsite at Lake Awoonga
After setting up the tent and having lunch, we wandered down to the water for a fresh swim and then sat in the sun to dry. A young girl was trying to coax her brother Luke into the water from a pontoon anchored about twenty metres from the shore. Karen and I joined in the coaxing, and shamed Luke into taking a dip. We picked up some freshwater mussels before making our way back up the hill past a group of pretty-faced wallabies to prepare a dinner of steak for Karen, a chop for me, with boiled vegetables and a dessert of cake and custard. There had not been much of a choice at the roadhouse shop. The mussels were boiled for an entree, and as tough as old boots they were too!
The two full days we spent at the lake were wonderful. Warm and sunny weather allowed us to swim regularly, despite the chilly waters of the dam, and daily exploratory walks in both directions along the shore added significantly to our bird tally. Mornings and evenings were spent in conversations with fellow travellers who seemed to use us as a kind of focus for their interactions. On the second night, with all of the caravanners hidden away in their vans preparing dinner, Karen and I lit an open fire. We were soon joined by Ron and Beryl who offered us some red wine, and not long after by Bob and Annie who, we soon discovered, lived in the Sydney suburb of Roseville, less than ten kilometres from our home. They shared our campfire until late, while we shared their champagne, white wine and beer.
Next morning I turned my attention to fishing, deciding to use the inedible mussels as bait. They were tough enough to stay on the hook for ages, despite a million tiny nibbles from microscopic fish, but nothing large was interested. I did learn a valuable lesson, however. Do not use a Swiss Army pocket knife to open mussels. I had actually learned this lesson on a couple of occasions as a child, but I was an adult now and a lot more careful and coordinated. So with great coordination and care, I put a deep slice in my right index finger. Karen was sitting nearby and had not seen what had happened. I dropped the knife and grabbed my finger, applying as much pressure as I could in an effort to staunch the bleeding.
"Karen," I said, "please try not to be alarmed, but I just cut my finger. Badly."
"Well that was pretty stupid, wasn't it? What do you want me to do about it?"
"Some cotton wool and a few bandaids would be nice", I replied. "Some sympathy wouldn't go astray, either."
We had a first aid kit, but it was back up the hill with all the rest of our gear. Karen spotted a water board ranger walking across the picnic area. We approached him, explained the situation, and he took us to an office near the shore of the lake, put on his rubber gloves, and proceeded to do a first class job of cleaning the wound and binding it with gauze and a bandage. I was as good as new in no time. The incident was made even more memorable by an air force jet that I spotted through the window while I was being treated. It screamed in low over the water and quickly disappeared over the top of the dam and down the valley.
That night, Karen and I were talking to a woman from a nearby caravan who was sharing our fire. She asked me the standard opening question, but after that the conversation turned strange.
"Where are you from?" she asked.
"Whereabouts in Sydney?"
"The northern beaches. Do you know Sydney at all?"
"Like the back of my hand. I lived in Dee Why for about ten years in the late seventies."
"I lived in Dee Why for about five years in the late seventies and early eighties," I said.
"Where in Dee Why?"
"Lots of places. McIntosh Road, Oaks Avenue, Pacific Parade and Howard Avenue."
"I lived in Howard Avenue too. Which end did you live at, the shops end or the beach end?"
"I lived at the beach end," I replied.
"So did I! Almost on the beach. A big, dark red block of units."
"It wasn't number 104 was it?"
"It sure was!"
We had lived in the same block of units! The coincidences were still happening.
Our stay at Lake Awoonga soon drew to a close as our food supply dwindled. We spent our last night talking to a birdwatcher named Graham from Gympie. Compared to us, he was almost an ornithologist, and he gave us good advice on what birds to expect as we travelled north. The following morning Karen and I did the rounds of the caravans, saying goodbye to all the people whose lives we had shared during the past three days. It almost felt like a going away party as we chatted with all the caravanners. It took us an hour to get out of the caravan park.
Just down the road we spotted some finches we had not seen before, so we stopped and extracted our bird book from Karen's front pannier. It is an unwritten rule of birdwatching that bird books are never referred to by their title, probably because they are all called the Field Guide to Australian Birds. Instead, bird books are always named after their author or authors.
"What bird book do you have?"
"Pizzey? Is it good?"
"Yeah, pretty good. I used to use Simpson and Day."
"Me too, but now we use Slater in the field, but we've got Cayley at home."
For the record, we use Simpson and Day. We like it because it has all the information about a bird in the one place, where other books have the pictures of birds in one section, and a description of their habitat and distribution in another. The birds are also shown in natural poses, not like some books where they are in stark profile, looking like a mug shot taken straight after an arrest. It has a couple of weaknesses though. Some of the colours seem wrong, and sometimes two birds the same apparent size on the page, are actually quite different sizes in real life.
We also modified our book somewhat. We ripped the cover off, and tore out the last third of the book as well. The discarded section contained information about habits, breeding cycles, and technical information about species and families, a lot of it very interesting, but not totally necessary for Karen and I, who were mainly after confirmed sightings. We could learn more about the birds later. The book was reduced simply to save weight.
So there we were on the side of the road, trying to identify the finches. They were amazing. There must have been a couple of hundred of them moving in unison through the long grass. If startled, they would fly to the nearest small tree, all landing within seconds of one another. It was like watching a movie of a bottle shattering, but with the film run in reverse. One minute the bottle is a mass of broken pieces on the ground, then all those pieces begin to fly together until they form a complete, unbroken whole. And then the film is run forward again as the birds all descend out of the tree, back to their search for seeds. We identified the birds as chestnut-breasted manikins. While we were stopped by the side of the road, a few of the caravanners from the lake came by, stopping to ask us if we were in trouble and needed any help. This would frequently happen to us, not so much on the highway, but often when we were birdwatching on the backroads, so Karen and I made it a regular practice to always have our binoculars to our eyes whenever a car was passing, making it very obvious what we are doing.
On the road to Mount Larcom
We turned onto the highway at Benaraby, but soon turned off onto a dirt road that led to Mount Larcom (the actual mountain, not the town). After a few kilometres we spotted what we thought was a new pigeon on the side of the road. As we approached, it squatted down on the ground, trying to make itself smaller and less obvious. We rode to within about two metres of it, and stopped. Perhaps the pigeon thought itself invisible because it stayed in position for about ten seconds, giving us an excellent view and ample time to make a positive identification, even without binoculars. Then, realising what a sitting duck it was, it jumped to its feet and flew away. Karen grabbed the bird book and we both searched the pigeon pages, finding its picture easily. It was a Squatter Pigeon, and we had been given a perfect demonstration of the reason for its name.
If we had been in a car, we would not have noticed these birds, let alone stopped for them. Even if we had seen them, it is often difficult for a car to pull to the side of the road safely, without inconveniencing the cars behind, whereas bikes can do it easily. We are also a lot quieter than a car. Often birds will be totally unaware that we are watching them. Except for emus, which we seem to freak out.
The tourist brochures had assured us that Mount Larcom provided great views from its summit. After almost fifty kilometres of cycling, we arrived at the start of the walk shortly after midday. A sign advised us that the round trip to the top of the mountain would take five hours, so we had a quick lunch (half an hour), hid our bikes in the bush and took off. We reached the six hundred and thirty six metre summit in seventy hot and sweaty minutes, but the stupendous views were well worth it. The mountain is the highest point for miles around, with a sweeping three hundred and sixty degree panorama stretching from Rockhampton in the north, out to Heron Island, down to Gladstone and inland to Mount Stanley, Castle Tower, Lake Awoonga and Kroombit Tops.
Karen and Stuart on top of Mount Larcom
We shared the summit with a pommy named Stuart, who worked in Gladstone and pointed out all the features of the area. He was better than any map or guide book. We spent about half an hour on top of the mountain, taking photographs, drinking water and sharing some peanuts with our tour guide, then began the descent. Stuart started out with us, but could not keep up with our pace. We still had twenty seven kilometres to cycle after we got down, so we were not exactly dawdling. An hour later we were back at the bikes, and an hour and a half after that, right on dusk, we rode into the township of Mount Larcom to camp for the night.
The manager of the Shell roadhouse must have known how arduous our day had been, because as we dined in his restaurant that night, he shouted us a beer each. Unfortunately, we both probably needed to be as pissed as parrots to get any sleep, because the camping ground is sandwiched between the highway on one side and the railway track on the other, and an endless succession of trains and roadtrains treated us to a cacophony of engine noise and clattering all through the night.
A light southerly breeze helped us all the way to Rockhampton the next day. Arriving in mid afternoon, we took the obligatory photograph at the Tropic of Capricorn monument, another at a church which Karen fancied, and got down to a real celebration with ice-creams at McDonalds. Learning from our Bundaberg experience, we rode straight to the Riverside caravan park and set up near a Japanese couple also cycling around the country from Sydney. They had cycled over one hundred kilometres from Gladstone this morning, and would ride out tomorrow morning for another hundred kilometre day. Many Japanese cyclists shared their philosophy, racking up the miles, seeing a lot of highway and traffic, but experiencing very little of the real Australia. We were to learn that most Japanese cyclists have only a limited time to travel the country, so every time you see them they are head down, bum up, pedalling up the highway. They rarely stop to actually look at anything, because they have so far to go and so little time.
Karen at the Tropic of Capricorn
A "rest" day was called for, but many of these typically saw us walking or riding just as hard as a travelling day. The rest day in Rocky proved to be no exception to the rule. We began the day with a walk around the local botanical gardens. During this walk we finally came to the realisation that a single pair of binoculars between the two of us was just not working. We had brought only one pair with us, primarily to save weight. Because she was carrying them on her bike, Karen would use them first, get a good sighting of the bird, then hand the binoculars across to me for confirmation. Hopefully the bird would have stayed put during this time. In the gardens, I spotted a potential new bird and tried to explain to Karen exactly where it was.
"It's over there, in the tree", I said, pointing vaguely at a forest.
"The tree with the leaves, and the branch coming out about half way up."
"Is the branch coming out on the right side or the left side of the tree?"
"On the right side. If you stand here and line it up with that little shrub over there, the tree is the one a little to the left."
"Which little shrub, the bushy one or the dead one?"
"The bushy one! Do you see the tree about twenty metres past it?"
"Now follow the trunk up about fifteen feet and you will see a branch sticking out on the right. Got it?"
"Yes, I've got it."
"Now go along that branch until you come to a smaller branch that's been broken off. You see that?"
"Okay, now just to the right of that there is a little clump of leaves and smaller branches."
"Yeah, I can see them."
"Good. The bird is just in there. It has its head turned at the moment, but ... wait a moment, okay, there it is now. See it?"
"No?! How can you miss it! It's staring you in the face!"
"I can't see it, okay. Is it above the main branch or below it?"
"How could it be below it? There's nothing below the branch!"
"Well the branch I'm looking at has lots of smaller branches below it!"
"You're looking at the wrong bloody tree, you arsehole! Give me the binoculars!"
And just as Karen handed me the binoculars, the bird flew away. With scenes like this occurring at regular intervals, not only was sharing the binoculars wearing very thin, but our marriage was in danger of collapse too, especially when the perils of shopping together were added to the equation. We decided to buy a new pair of binoculars for me later in the day. But first we had a date with Mount Archer.
The mountain lies between the town and the coast. A road five kilometres long winds its way steeply to a summit six hundred and eight metres above sea level. At a steady six kilometres per hour, it took us almost an hour of constant pedalling to reach the park at the top of the mountain. We suspect we saw a couple of Glossy Black Cockatoos about halfway up the mountain, but our single pair of binoculars had made a positive sighting difficult. We were slightly out of their usual territory at the time, and needed a detailed examination of their plumage to determine if they were actually Glossies, and not another species of Black Cockatoo. Once at the summit, we walked to a few lookouts and enjoyed the views. Away to the south, Mount Larcom was just visible through a slight haze. Then it was back down the mountain, a much easier and much faster trip! After a $4.95 all-you-can-eat lunch at the Pizza Hut, it was two happy and content touring cyclists who went to the local shopping centre to stock up on some provisions and look for binoculars.
Rather than have me wait outside with Elle and Mel, Karen decided we should both shop so she wheeled her bike through the shopping centre in search of Franklin's. I reluctantly followed, sure that pushbikes would not be welcome inside. As I passed through the automatic doors, I noticed a sign which confirmed my belief. I called out to Karen that bikes were not allowed inside the shopping centre, but she was either out of earshot or she was ignoring me. I followed Karen as best I could but lost her at an intersection. While waiting for her to reappear, I was confronted by a security guard who pointed out that bikes were not allowed in the complex. He asked me to leave by the nearest exit. Because Karen and I had entered by a rear door, I had no idea whether she would return to that point, assuming she could find it, or whether she would expect me to wait at the main entrance. I was not too happy with Karen's unilateral decision to simply walk off either, so I went to the K-Mart next door to survey the binocular market. After about half an hour, I returned to the shopping centre for a final look around before returning to the caravan park. I reasoned that when Karen realised we had been separated, she would go straight back to the caravan park where our tent was still set up. As I was pushing my bike across the road to the shopping centre, a guy in a car hailed me.
"Are you looking for a girl?" he shouted.
It was the best offer I had had all day, but he went on to explain that he had seen another cyclist with a bike and gear like mine, and she had seemed lost. I thanked him for his concern and he drove away. A short time later I saw Karen. When I walked over to her, she promptly broke down crying, abused me for leaving her, and said it was all my fault for wasting three quarters of an hour. Another shopping disaster! Unbelievable!
Next morning, after a deep and meaningful discussion about the state of our union the night before, the frustration and aggravation caused by the binoculars incident and the shopping debacles had been temporarily alleviated. At least until the next time. We did a cycling tour of the town, visiting the barrage dam across the Fitzroy River, the historic buildings along Quay Street, and the Department of Transport to pick up a rest area map. Cappuccino and cake - always guaranteed to bring a smile to Karen's face - helped to brighten the mood, as did the purchase of a pair of compact binoculars for me. We eventually departed the city limits around midday for the forty one kilometres to Emu Park on the coast.
My new binoculars were brought into action almost immediately, with sightings of the black kite - the most common bird of prey in all of northern Australia - and the black-faced woodswallow. We photographed the Singing Ship - Emu Park's main claim to fame - and lunched in a nearby park before riding north. The Mulambin Beach caravan park, our intended overnight stopping point, proved to be crowded and uncomfortable, so we rode on and on until we arrived at Yeppoon. A fifty kilometre day had suddenly been transformed into eighty one.
Karen and the Singing Ship
The council caravan park at Yeppoon was packed too, but it was late in the day and we had no place else to go so there was not much the manager could do. If worse came to worst, we would set up in the middle of his front lawn and be guaranteed of overnight accommodation when the police came to take us away. Due to another coincidence, this did not eventuate. While Karen and I were walking through the caravan park looking for a vacant piece of ground on which to pitch our tent, we met Bill and Lois, whom we had camped beside during our stay in Urangan, two weeks and five hundred kilometres ago. They agreed to let us squeeze in between them and their neighbours, who also consented to let us stay.
After a rest day during which we toured the Capricornia Resort with Bill and Lois in the morning and actually rested during the afternoon, Karen and I were again keen for some exercise. We decided on a walk in the national park opposite the caravan park, where we had noticed a number of kites soaring above a thickly wooded ridge. A track up the hill led from a shop just across the road. The shopkeeper directed us past his pet brush turkeys and onto a path up to the communications towers on the ridge. Almost immediately we spotted a new bird - the rose-crowned fruit-dove. My new binoculars worked beautifully.
Intent on looking for more new birds, Karen and I were not paying too much attention to the green ant nests which dotted the area. For most people who live in the south of the continent, the only ant problem we ever face is how to stop their processions from the garden to the sugar bowl in the cupboard and back again. The north of the continent, however, has a delightful little member of the order hymenoptera, family formicidae, commonly known as the green ant. It builds nests from leaves which it joins at the edges with a sticky, thread-like material which is exuded by its larvae, to form a nest about the size of a small football. These nests are common throughout the trees of the top end, and the trees themselves have hordes of green ants running around in them all the time. An unwary traveller pushing his way through the scrub soon finds himself covered with ants very quickly. Their bite is a very painful and unpleasant experience.
Suddenly Karen realised that she was host to a party of uninvited guests, and proceeded to have a panic attack, beating at her clothes, tearing off her sloppy-joe, running over to me and shouting "Get them off! Get them off!" while she attempted to hyperventilate. More typical female hysteria, I thought, as I brushed about ten ants off her back. I do not believe that Karen was actually bitten on this occasion, but I received a few bites, mainly on the ear and chest. Fortunately, a green ant bite is only painful for the duration of the bite. Once it lets go, or is brushed off, the pain goes away, and neither of us have ever suffered any later, adverse reactions. It was worth it though, as we also saw two other new birds on this part of the walk.
The views from the top of the ridge were impressive, stretching way to the north and south and out to the Keppel Islands. Birds were everywhere. At one point we saw sunbirds, varied trillers, figbirds, mistletoe birds, fruit doves, bee eaters, Lewin's honey-eaters and a pheasant coucal, and during our walk back to the caravan park along the beach, we spotted our fourth new bird for the walk, the dark morph of a reef egret.
Late in the afternoon, one of our neighbours confronted us with a garbled monologue which did not allow us to utter a word. Obviously agitated, the old bloke had really worked himself into a state, saying that he thought we were only staying for one night, and that he did not want to get accused of sub-letting his caravan site, and he wanted to use the space where our tent was pitched to park his car, and he had absolutely no complaints about us because we had behaved perfectly and they had not heard a peep out of us, but he was really worried about being kicked out of the park. He did not make eye contact the entire time and continued mumbling as he walked back into his annex. To keep the peace, I checked with the caravan park manager regarding other possible locations for us and he suggested a site about twenty metres from us which was only occupied by a single campervan. As most sites have room for a car, a caravan and an annex, there was plenty of room available if the occupier was willing to share, which he was. We pulled up the tent and moved sites immediately.
A couple of amusing sidelights to our move then occurred. Just as I finished banging in our last tent peg, the entire coast was hit by a black-out. I am sure that the old fart who had asked us to move was huddled in his caravan, convinced that I had pulled out his electrical lead as an act of retribution. Then Bill came out of his van and thought we must have taken off again, because he had seen both us and our tent only a half hour before.
Our last day at Yeppoon was spent touring the wetlands attached to the Capricornia Resort under the direction of a guy named Fletch. He was a regular, annual visitor to the Yeppoon caravan park, who fossicked for, found and polished his own precious and semi-precious stones, and would show his methods and results to anyone who expressed an interest. He also ran free weekly tours of the nearby wetlands, guiding people in their own cars through the unmapped back roads, pointing out the wildlife and places of interest, and explaining a bit of the history of the resort and its surrounds. Fletch arranged a lift to the wetlands for Karen and myself, with a couple named Barbara and Ron. Barbara was amazing. She holidayed up north every year for a few months. During that time she would join some of the local clubs in order to learn new skills in a variety of crafts. Her needlework, pottery and painting were exceptional, and the detail she applied to her work was superb. Karen said she would have been proud to have produced just one of the items we were shown.
During the tour we saw huge numbers of water birds, especially black swans, brolgas and magpie geese. We also saw huge numbers at the pro-shop attached to the resort's golf course - two dollars for six wooden tees, twenty one dollars for an eye-shade, and fifty four dollars for eighteen holes of golf! Later in the day we enjoyed an evening walk into town for a kebab dinner and a movie - Braveheart, starring the namesake of Karen's bike.
Magpie Geese in the Capricornia wetlands
The next morning, we farewelled all of our new friends and hit the road again. To prevent a recurrence of our shopping misadventures, I bought groceries in Yeppoon while Karen waited outside the supermarket with the bikes, and we then cycled thirty something kilometres west to meet up with Highway One again. After a snack and some water, we resumed riding and by lunch-time had arrived at Yaamba, a one horse town with a pub and not much else. According to our maps, our next potential stopping place was seventy kilometres further north at Marlborough, so we inquired about tent site prices and discussed our options over lunch.
A caravan had pulled up in the rest area where we had parked our bikes, and a familiar face got out as we approached, greeting us by name. We were stunned to recognise Alan and his wife Margaret whom we had first met at Booti Booti shortly after our trip had begun. They had been travelling to Sydney at the time, and lived in northern New South Wales, so what were they doing here in central Queensland? Ten weeks and almost two thousand kilometres after our first meeting, we discovered they were now on a completely different holiday, to north Queensland, and we had bumped into them again! They were headed for Cape Hillsborough, one of our upcoming destinations, so we told them we would look them up when we arrived there.
I was feeling very gung-ho, my usual attitude, and tried to talk Karen into continuing on to Marlborough. If we finished lunch by 2pm, I reasoned, and then averaged twenty kilometres per hour for the next three and a half hours, we would arrive at our destination right on sunset at 5:30pm. Karen was not feeling quite as motivated as I was. We had already ridden sixty one kilometres, a fairly long distance after our three day break in Yeppoon, and here I was proposing that we go out and do it all again, and then some. She also felt lethargic and had a slight headache, but Yaamba is not the most scenic of stops, so Karen agreed to continue riding provided we loaded up with water in case of an unplanned overnight camp by the side of the road. Sensible precautions.
Fifteen minutes into our afternoon riding session, Karen noticed that her back tyre was soft. We pumped it up and rode on for another few kilometres, hoping the leak was slow, but the tyre was soon flat again. We bowed to the inevitable, stopped and replaced the tube, a time delay we really did not need. A scheduled rest-stop at one hundred kilometres coincided with a lone petrol station offering free coffee to all drivers, so we took up their offer. Karen has long been a caffeine addict, and this latest hit powered her through the final two hours. Dusk was soon upon us, and we rode into Marlborough in the short twilight with both of our tail-lights flashing brightly. We had covered one hundred and thirty two kilometres, the first one hundred kilometre day of the trip, and our longest day of riding ever, eclipsing a day-trip of one hundred and twenty five kilometres from Sydney to Wyong and back a few years earlier. On that particular day, however, we had not been lugging forty kilograms of gear each.
Surprisingly, both Karen and I did not feel too buggered after the long ride. We had been fairly fit when we had left Sydney, and theorised that the combination of medium and short days interspersed with a liberal sprinkling of rest days had toughened up our legs enough to cope with long days over one hundred kilometres. As the next two days would both be over one hundred kilometres as well, this theory would be put to the test.
Karen lunching in the dirt on the way to Clairview
The one hundred and six kilometres to Clairview the next day were relatively unremarkable, except for the flocks of apostle birds around the tent when we rose before dawn, and our first sightings of budgerigars. We took things easy, with regular stretch and drink stops, and long breaks for morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea. Clairview is a collection of fishermen's shacks and holiday houses running down the ocean side of the highway. Its tides were amazing, with the shore a kilometre away at 5pm and only twenty metres away an hour later.
Karen and I were not impressed by the facilities or service at the local caravan park - the Golden Mermaid Caravan Resort - which was to become the yardstick by which all other lousy caravan parks would be judged. I described it in my diary as "a shit-hole run by a hard-faced harpy charging twelve dollars a site (the highest so far) for no facilities and water in the shower that couldn't hold a lather." Karen and the manageress took an instant dislike to each other, which is best illustrated by their initial conversation.
"What do we get for our twelve dollars?" asked Karen, not at her best after two long days in the saddle.
"A tent site."
"This is the most we've ever had to pay. How can you justify the price?"
"We charge what the market will bear."
"Can we use the pool?"
"No. We close the pool during the winter months because nobody uses it."
"So you've closed some facilities but still charge the same amount?"
"Do you have a campers kitchen or a shelter where we can prepare dinner?"
"We do have a games room, but it is closed for repairs."
"Well how about some tables and chairs - do you have any of those?"
"No. There used to be some down on the beach but the greenies complained and the council took them away."
"So even though we can't use the pool, or the games room, or the tables and chairs, we still have to pay for them anyway?"
"Don't you think that twelve dollars is a lot to pay for one tent site and nothing else?"
"No. It's what I want to charge and if you don't like it you can go somewhere else."
A truly charming woman giving heart-warming, personal service. We later heard a rumour that she had submitted a development application to the local council to build a proper resort on the site, and was letting the caravan park run down in the meantime. We also learned later that she had a state-wide reputation for being a bitch. We had already worked that out for ourselves. Next morning when we rode out, we passed a free camping area only a few hundred metres up the road. If only we had known about it the night before.
For most of the section between Rockhampton and Mackay, and for most of our ride up the east coast, the prevailing south-easterlies had been behind us. This prompted me to think about headwinds and tailwinds and their relative pros and cons. Halfway through my thinking I broached the subject with my wife.
"Hey Karen, what do you reckon is better. Having the wind coming from behind you, or from in front?"
"What a stupid question! Tailwinds are always better!" Karen was having a bad day.
"Not necessarily," I replied. "We don't get sweat running from under our helmets and down into our eyes with a headwind. And our sunglasses don't fog up either.
With headwinds, the wind chill factor means a lot cooler riding."
"But we need more cooling because we are working so much harder, don't we?"
"I suppose so. But flies bother us a lot when the wind is behind us, don't they?" I counter.
"True, but then again, it's so much better having the wind behind us that we don't worry about the flies, do we?"
"Well you're a wussy!"
"Okay," I continue, letting the last remark slide, "but headwinds keep the hair out of our eyes, though, don't they?"
"Oh come on, Brett, you're clutching at straws now!"
"Alright, okay, then how about this argument. If we have headwinds, the days we ride will be tougher, and we will appreciate the size of the country to a greater degree. We'll value the places we reach so much more because it was so difficult to get to them."
"It doesn't have to get any tougher. Any tougher and we wouldn't be getting anywhere. We'd just stop and go back home. After riding one hundred kilometres, I don't have any trouble appreciating the place I reach. This is a ridiculous argument. You are not serious about this, are you? Nobody in their right mind would prefer to ride into the wind when they could have the wind behind them!"
Then Karen asked the question I had been hoping for.
"So just tell me, Brett, what do you really prefer, head or tailwinds?"
"I prefer head," I answered.
Our third straight one hundred kilometre day was an effort. The legs felt okay, but our bums were suffering badly. The kilometres rolled passed with only the names of our rest-stops to remember the day by. Morning tea at Carmila, lunch at Koumala, an afternoon tea of ice-creams at Sarina and then thirty six more kilometres to Mackay. The scenery had changed from the flat, dry, sparse woodland of the cattle stations north of Rockhampton to the greenery of the cane-fields that would be our constant companions throughout the next couple of months.
Shortly after lunch I realised that I was a lot more comfortable on the bike than off it, not in the physical sense, but spiritually. It was a feeling that would stay with me for the rest of the trip. Off the bike, I had to worry about setting up the tent, and pulling it down, about keeping a watch over all of our gear, and about the hundreds of other things that make up the logistical side of cycle touring. On the bike, however, I just had to ride. Even the traffic had become a constant, like the road and the wind, and was therefore ignored for much of the time.
We set up camp in a caravan park in North Mackay and walked to the nearest pub for dinner and grog to celebrate the three hundred and sixty eight kilometres we had covered in the past three days. Each day had been over one hundred kilometres, and each day had been longer than any previous day of the trip. Our cycling and fitness had taken a quantum leap, and had given us a greater understanding and appreciation of our abilities and performance. Now that we knew how far we could go, the longer sections of desert riding that faced us through the centre and down the west coast no longer seemed impossible.
Our recent efforts justified a rest day, so we booked a bus tour to Eungella. After a drive to the Finch Hatton gorge for morning tea, we visited the nearby Araluen Falls and enjoyed an invigorating swim (freezing) in the plunge pool. A lunch of barbecued steak and salad was followed by a visit to a woodworker's studio whose work, mostly in western red cedar, was art rather than simply craft. His prices reflected this difference too, with coffee tables costing fifteen hundred dollars, mirrors for five hundred dollars or more, and more elaborate pieces running into the multiple thousands. We then visited the chalet at the top of the pass for good views down Pioneer Valley to the coast, and moved on to Broken River where we watched a few platypus shovelling around in the mud and weed in their search for food. Then it was back to Mackay, with Graham Connors on tape singing about the burning cane fields while we were actually travelling through burning cane fields.
The following day was a rest day as well, with the usual chores of washing and shopping to be done, along with a short walking tour of Mackay. My diary entry for the highlight of the day reads - "A happy shopping trip - everything else pales into insignificance!"
We rode fifty kilometres to Cape Hillsborough the next day. On a previous Queensland trip, Karen and I had stayed at Cape Hillsborough and had loved it. We had to return to find out whether our initial impressions had been correct. A national park ranger suggested we stay at the council campground as the park campgrounds were full, but we soon discovered that the resort next door was cheaper, did not charge for hot showers and had free gas burners and barbecues. Add a room with lights, a couple of chairs with backs and a table-tennis table, and we were soon setting up our tent on a private site in the resort.
Wedge Island at Cape Hillsborough
Cape Hillsborough was as good as we remembered, and we spent a couple of days re-exploring the area. We walked out to nearby Wedge Island at low tide and spent a few hours clambering around its untracked scrub and rocky cliffs. Despite a sign indicating that the walk was closed, we hiked over the top of the cape itself to Smalley's Beach, delighting in its views of Mackay and its hinterland, Brampton Island and the Whitsundays along the way. At Smalley's beach, we found the campsite of Margaret and Alan, and had morning tea with Margaret while Alan was out fishing for the day. One highlight of this walk was a rainforest section shortly after the start, filled with hundreds of blue and brown butterflies so thick that we could hear their wingbeats! Another highlight was two more new birds - the spectacled monarch and the white-eared monarch. Back at the ranger station we asked why the track had been closed - not revealing that we had just walked it twice - and were told that it was too dangerous. Karen and I could not believe it - apart from one small scramble through a rocky section, the track was easy. The closure of tracks was a sad and recurring feature of many of our visits to various national parks, with the NPWS apparently running scared of the risk of litigation from injured walkers.
View on the walk to Smalley's Beach
Our second day at Cape Hillsborough was spent entertaining visitors. After a morning walk to Beachcomber's Cove and Indian Head, we arrived back at our tent site and who should saunter past but Dennis, the cyclist we had met at Childers three weeks and almost a thousand kilometres earlier. A few cups of coffee and an hour later, each of us had caught up with all of our latest news. After lunch, Karen and I went down to the beach to write postcards in the sun, but were soon interrupted by Alan, of Margaret and Alan fame. He had been directed down to the beach by our neighbours in the resort when he had come for a visit. We walked back to our site with him and were soon repaying their previous kindness by sharing an afternoon tea and biscuits with them. We talked until the early evening.
Next morning we followed the Lookouts Walk to Wedge Island lookout, Andrews Point lookout, Turtle lookout (where we saw turtles), the Resort lookout and the Twin Beaches lookout. Just as we returned to our camp-site, we recognised a guy walking towards us. It was Stewart, met fifteen days and six hundred kilometres earlier on the top of Mount Larcom. He and his new girlfriend were spending the weekend away from Gladstone and just happened to be passing us on the track. As we spoke to Stewart and his girlfriend, I noticed our neighbours watching us from the comfort of a couple of deckchairs outside their caravan. They must have thought we were the most sociable people in Australia - we seemed to know everyone who walked by! Even Karen and I were starting to feel that something rather strange was happening.
Late in the day when all of our guests had departed, Karen and I walked out to Hidden Valley, a spot we had not visited on our first trip to the area. It is a cool, dark and silent area of forest on the southern side of the national park and it exudes a strange and mystical aura that both Karen and I could feel but not explain. Perhaps we had been influenced by the weird series of coincidences we had experienced of late. Ringing Ian at Urangan to find him only a stone's throw away had been unlikely but possible. Meeting the woman at Lake Awoonga who had lived in the same block of units as me had been pretty weird. Meeting Alan and Margaret at Yaamba when they had been on a second holiday had been decidedly spooky. Then we re-meet Dennis, last seen heading off in the opposite direction on his pushbike, and as if that is not enough, along comes Stewart, first met on top of a mountain weeks before. The chain of coincidences was beginning to border on the bizarre.
However, throughout the course of the rest of our travels these chance meetings were to continue with such frequency that they became almost commonplace, and if possible, even stranger.