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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Days 25-27: North to Cairns via Townsville, Queensland, Australia

We didn't see any wombats in Wilsons Promontory National Park, and we didn't see any koalas on Magnetic Island, which is over half national park and has one of the largest concentrations of wild koalas in Australia. I was beginning to feel ripped off. But then we turned off the Bruce Highway towards Mission Beach, where all the signs are pictures of cassowaries and it's a cassowary conservation area, and--we saw a cassowary! There he stood, a blue-headed, turkey-wattled bird the height of a man--an endangered species and a vital link in the ecosystem, as many rainforest fruits are too large to be eaten (and thus the seeds dispersed) by other animals. We felt privileged to get up close to him, though there was some debate about the bird's sex. I thought it might be a female, as cassowaries practice gender role reversal--once the female lays the eggs, the male incubates them and raises the chicks on his own. But T. said no, she probably has some high-powered job in the City!

Midnight Oil was playing in mining country as we came to the end of the cane railway crossings (supposedly) and a hand-lettered, cardboard sign that just advertised "Mangoes Yum." Billabongs or actual isolated ponds (a Wiradjuri word) appeared, but not with the regularity of cane railways. We were driving through the burdekin, the delta of the Burdekin River in the Dry Tropics between Bowen and Townsville. Resisting the temptations of the Gumlu fruit stand or "Fisho at Servo," T. put the car in second gear to climb Inkerman Hill for a better lookout.

I mentioned every place has its bakery, no matter how small. Near Home Hill a road sign claimed "Finest deli this side of Milan"! We thought of challenging this, but the very next village claimed they had the best deli. Whom to believe? I busied myself with counting creek names. Waistcoat Creek, Christmas Creek (with forlorn decorations still on the sign), Boobah Creek, Jack Creek, and my personal favorite, Stagnant Creek. "Where do you live?" "Oh, just past Stagnant Creek!" Maria Creek (South, North, and Big) and Cowley Beach round out my collection.

South of Home Hill, Charlie's Hill was the World War II site of RAAF radar that could detect aircraft over 300 miles away. Everywhere there are reminders of the Australian armed forces and those that have served in them. Indeed, besides the bakery and the bowls club, no town is complete without the Returned and Services League (RSL). And war memorial.

From Townsville to Magnetic Island by ferry takes about the same amount of time (twenty minutes) as to cross from England to France via the Channel Tunnel. For those of us who've crossed the Channel by ferry, this never ceases to be remarkable. There was rain in Townsville and storms were forecast, but over on "Maggie" it was merely cloudy and breezy, which was just as well as it was a hot tropical hike we were taking. From the end of Mandalay Avenue (and it felt like Burma too), we walked through a pocket of rainforest and up to the saddle between Nelly's Bay and Horseshoe Bay. Saw lots of skinks, another amusing animal that looks like a snake that has not quite achieved lizardhood. (They are harmless and come in many beautiful colors). And butterflies.

We got good views over Horseshoe Bay, but didn't hike very far along the ridge, preferring a coffee at Le Paradis (very friendly French café) and a chill on the absolutely empty beach at Nelly Bay. There are so many beaches in Australia sometimes we get one all to ourselves. It never ceases to amaze me how many wonderful places there are, and that they are free--not fenced off, blocked with warning signs or fee gates, or owned by rich people. At least not yet.

It was just too hot in Townsville to do anything (but swim) before the sun dipped behind the giant red hill that is the backdrop to the town. The beach waterfront, The Strand, is done up gorgeously. The papaya salad at Bountiful Thai appealed after all the tropical fruit we've been seeing, but I've rarely tasted anything so hot. Did not expect the red curry to be a relief from the salad!

From Townsville to Cairns the temperature rose five degrees Celsius in ten minutes. I have a lot of nice things to say about my time in Australia, but I can't let this go: The traffic lights are unbelievable. You sit at a deserted intersection, no matter what the size of city or town, for longer at a red light than anywhere else I have ever driven. Each lane seems to get its own turn, while everyone else continues to wait. And--pedestrians still don't cross on red, even if there is no automobile anywhere in sight, from any direction! I don't get the design of these lights. Other than to force everyone to slow down further, and take things at a pace that suits this heat.

They still have Woolworth's in Australia (everywhere) and Blockbuster, and one other thing that I find nice, though not personally useful. No matter how plain the bathroom (toilet or washroom), it is usually clean and usable and equipped with a "Sharps" container. Now, I once had some medical needles to dispose of and could not get anybody to take them anywhere in Britain, no matter if I went to pharmacies, hospitals, let alone a little bathroom in a gas station somewhere. But if you have a medical condition that requires you to inject something, by gum, Australia is the place to throw it away. Too bad it's too far for the rest of the world to commute.


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