The Atherton Tablelands, Northern Queensland, January 10th, 1999Leaving Townsville, morale was at an all time low. The weather was terrible and apparently could be the same all the way up to Cairns... And I had no money. Having lost my Visa card, ran out of Aussie TC's and got caught out by all the banks closing for days over the extended New Year holiday. I was budgeting to the last cent. After a 170km ride, I arrived in the small and quiet seaside town of Cardwell. The last section of the ride had seen a sudden change in scenery. The endless sugar cane fields which I had watched for so many days had finlly given way to forest as the Great Dividing Range crept closer to the coast. The rains cleared leaving a golden light and gentle breeze. Camped at the YHA leaving me a grand total of a dollar fifty to my name...but happy in the knowledge that the banks were finally reopening the next day. Things were looking up.
Hichinbrook Island lay opposite, home to pods of dugong. Dugong are also known as 'sea cows' on account of the time they spend munching on the sea grass which lines the sea bed, and their lazy (but graceful) movements in the water. Unfortunately there are very few left, and occasionaly they can be seen popping up for air after a good feed.
Met Rosal, a community worker recently graduated from Brisbane and about to set off to Hanoi to spend a year working under the wing of the Australian Government's aid program out there. She had a bike and some time to kill so we set about cycling around the local waterfalls around Cardwell the following morning. Got up at dawn to watch the sunrise over the island, then cycled from waterhole to creek to waterfall. We then tackled the Atherton Tablelands, an elevated hinterland filled with waterfalls, rivers, creeks and rainforest up in the range behind Cairns.
The Palmeston Highway is a quiet road which climbs up to the Tablelands. A tough but welcome change after the monotony of the Bruce Highway which I had followed most of the time since leaving Brisbane. To break up the climb, we camped in a clearing by a creek where platypus can sometimes be seen. Didn't see any though. Awoke to the sound of birds and the return of the big and fat March Fly. This monster of the insect kingdom lands, pauses as if readying itself for the feast ahead, and then begins the 'drilling'...The trick is to let it bite before taking a swipe, as it seems to take it a moment to retract the drill. Then recycle it by throwing it into the water for the fish!
The road continued its upwards climb in lazy sweeps, up and up, with the odd short burst of lungbursting near vertical climb. I was dripping with sweat and Rosal, cycling in everyday sandals, was looking worriedly ahead, scanning the road for signs of a plateau. In her words:
'I just kept looking down, watching the chain's hypnotic whirling and following the white line of the road, breathing deeply, not looking up. As long as the road was moving beneath me, I knew I was OK.'
Once the climb was over, we spent a few days bushcamping by creeks, leaping under waterfalls (such as Mila Mila) and stopping off to feast at fruit stalls by the side of the road. These sold bananas, mango, starfruit and other tropical delicacies, as well as dried versions which are perfect for cycling. The roads were narrow and winding, dropping down into lush valleys before regaining height with sharp climbs onto ridges. By night,the sky was heavy with stars, and glowbeatles flickered on and off against the silhouette of the forest. Nocturnal marsupials, such as the Kangaroo Rat, forraged about as dusk fell, their sensors on the lookout for supper. They seemed fairly indifferent to human presence and hungrily sniffed about by the tent.
The Tablelands are quite breathtaking, with their waterfalls, lakes, rivers and rainforest. We indulgently cycled from one water hole or falls to the next and cooled off from the heat in the icy water. But for the falls, you could almost be in Dorset at times with all the rolling hills and dairy farming. The Tablelands are home to a few lakes, including Tinaroo, a huge body of water which reaches out along its edges like spindley fingers. Lake Eacham was my favourite. It's a natural rainwater crater lake in a perfect circle of rainforest, a km wide and 65 metres deep. The water is perfect to swim in and for once hides no dangerous animals. Felt the need to swim across it, around 2kms there and back, with no ledge to stop and rest. Exhausting!
The last night we camped by a river in the dramatic and beautiful Goldsborough valley and hungrily finished our by now dwindling supplies. A packet of 2 minute noodles remained for breakfast. Having climbed and climbed on the first day, we had earned ourselves a big down hill. The Gillies Highway. A 20k descent, dropping 800 metres and featuring 420 bends. Serious wearing of the brake pads! An impressive view point near the top gave a panoramic view of the range we had come over. My camera managed to work its way out of the topbox, flew out onto the road, and died horrifically...
Rejoined the busy highway to Cairns feeling invigorated after such a great
few days of bushcamping and cycling. I'm looking forward to a good meal in
Cairns and a comfortable bed. This detour of a couple of hundred kilometres
had become one of the highlights of Queensland.