As you all know (or should know if you’ve been keeping up with my blog posts) I am now in Cairns. However, you don’t know anything else about what happened on my trip to get there. Lucky you! I am going to write all about it in this post.
The trip to get to Cairns took three days, but I’m going to attempt to write about that entire tour in one post so I can get to the post about snorkeling and rafting. I’m still behind on posts but I’m working very hard for you to get up to date!
I’ll start at the beginning. Once again we had to leave very early in the morning. This time it was before the sun had even shown his face. These early morning drives are becoming entirely too common for me. Thank heavens for caffeine! As we boarded the bus, the driver had to collect the money for the tour. I was very proud of myself that even in my half-asleep state I realized that he was overcharging me by about 45 dollars. I stink at math, but not when someone is trying to pull one over on me!
The bus drove around picking up all the people on our tour, and then dropped us all off at the real bus. I can only guess that our real bus driver wanted to sleep an extra hour while someone else had the chore of gathering us all up.
The bus we were getting on was almost like a luxury hotel compared to what I had come from on the Heading Bush tour. There were only about 15 of us on this trip, but the bus had about 40 seats. Each of us had our own two seats on the bus, and there was abundant leg room, air conditioning, and even a TV! It was like it was made for the queen herself.
Allen, our bus driver, told us that we would have a bit of a drive before our first stop so we should all take a little nap and he’d wake us up in a couple of hours. We of course took him up on his offer, but it was a bit hard to stay asleep when he kept honking the horn every half hour or so. He said it was to scare the eagles feeding on the roadkill so he could avoid hitting them… but I have my suspicions.
As promised, Allen woke us up a few hours into the drive and talked to us about what we would be seeing on our journey to Cairns. With our luxury super bus we wouldn’t attempt to travel any rough terrains that we’d have relished in the 4WD vehicle of Heading Bush, but we would be hitting plenty of dirt roads and we’d even see the outskirts of the Simpson Desert.
There was plenty of time for us to twiddle our thumbs and stare out the window on this trip. There was a lot of driving in between each stop. I remember one point, after we had been driving through kilometers and kilometers of absolutely nothing, we were all extremely excited to see a police station. It was placed pretty much in the middle of nowhere in the Australian Outback. Allen told us that two cops live in the area with their families, and between the two of them they monitor an area of 2000 km. If they hear about an accident that happened 1894 km away it might take them six to eight hours to even arrive to the scene. Can you imagine living like that? Or worse, can you imagine if you were in an accident in their territory while they were 2000km away? I sure hope they have other protocols for situations like that.
There was a toilet on the bus, but Allen asked us to please only use it in an emergency. These bus toilets weren’t meant to be used for three days straight. When we had to go, he would make a stop in the bush so we could use the same ‘bush toilets’ that I became accustomed to on my last trip! Such wonderful memories it brought back. It was amusing to me seeing the girls act nervous on their first time peeing outside. I felt like I was a pro by this point!
Our first non-toilet stop was at a little Aboriginal village where we were could buy artwork at the town’s art gallery or go to a little convenience store. It was a quick stop – in no more than 15 minutes we were back on the road. If this trip already seems less eventful than my previous ones, you are right. This particular trip wasn’t much of a tour, at least not in the sense that I was used to up to this point. It was more like a bus ride with a few stops and some commentary.
While we were trying to pass the time in between stops, Allen wanted us to get to know each other better so he had all of us stand up one at a time to talk about ourselves for one minute. He then told us that one thing we could count on him doing each morning of the trip was playing some silly Australian songs that we would most likely be sick of by the end of the tour. “G’day G’day! How ya going? Whaddaya know? Go strike a light!” ended up being our unofficial theme song. It wasn’t unheard of to catch yourself or someone else randomly singing it at the strangest times such as in the bathroom, after dinner, or even in your sleep.
When we were starting to get restless, Allen offered to put in a movie. We all cheered for that brilliant idea. He picked out a good one and slid the DVD into the player… but when he tried to turn it on, it didn’t play. We decided it wasn’t too big of a deal to not have a movie. This would just give us the chance to get to know each other a little better. We still had the luxury seats and the air conditioning!
I settled down comfortably and joined conversation with a couple of people in the seats near mine. I admit that I was a little concerned that on this trip I would hear many of the same things that I had already learned on the Heading Bush trip, but that didn’t end up being the case. This driver seemed to have a special fondness for cattle stations and the people who make a living by working out in the bush. The Heading Bush tour was more about the actual land and the history that it held, as well as it’s connection to the Aboriginals.
I found it fascinating how many cattle stations (i.e. large cow farms) were out in the bush – pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The cows would just roam free on the miles and miles of property, eating what they could find. Eventually they would be rounded up and sold for beef.
The amount of rain that each cattle station gets can make or break them for the year. If they have a year with too little rain they would have to sell off all of their cattle quickly before they die of thirst, which means they would have to sell them for less money in order to unload them faster. The last five years have been especially hard for the cattle stations – they have averaged at only a few centimeters of rain each year.
Our next stop was at a giant termite mound. Giant may be an understatement! The mount in the picture below is dead now, but it is thought to be over 200 years old. I’m next to it for scale. And if you were wondering, I’m 5’9.
The termite mound pictured above is made by ground dwelling termites. They make their mounds by mixing together dirt and saliva, which means that the color of the dirt determines the color of the mound. Can you imagine how many termites lived in that bad boy when it was alive? Another fun fact – in that entire mound there would be only one queen termite who laid enough eggs to create all the termite babies that populated the entire mound. That would be the job to have! Just sit on your butt and lay eggs night and day while the older generation fed you so you didn’t have to get up. This particular queen did a great job raising her kin. Look at the size of that thing! We marveled at the mound and took pictures for about 10 minutes before we were back on the road.
Eventually we got to the Northern Territory/Queensland border. This mean’s we were back on Sydney time! We were welcomed with a misspelled sign. Maybe they figured not enough people would be driving by to notice.
My favorite part is how they tried to correct it with a tiny red cross out symbol through the extra ‘r’.
At the Queensland border we passed another sign that said “Home of the Min Min lights!” This peaked my interest so I asked Allen what it meant. He explained that that a long time ago there was a hotel in the area called the Min Min hotel which was known for being the spot for crimes involving poisoned alcohol, murder, and prostitutes. The hotel was shut down following the tragedy and it burned to the ground soon after. Since then, people who were driving by at night would sometimes see strange lights following them through the area – sometimes for miles – and it supposedly still happens today. There have even been respectable and trustworthy people who have reported seeing them. There are all kinds of theories as to what these lights might be that range from fireflies to gas bubbles, but no definite explanation has been found.
Our next stop was the middle of nowhere. You heard me right! One of the selling points in the brochure for this tour was that you would have the opportunity to go to the middle of nowhere and take a nothing walk. And I came anyway! The “middle of nowhere” was a little eerie. There truly was nothing for as far as the eye could see.
Imagine being stuck out here with no gas and no water? You would have no hope.
The reason for the lack of tree life in areas like these is that they are made up of a type of soil called ‘black soil’. Black soil (not named for it’s color) cracks when it gets too dry which causes any trees that might be growing in it to fall over – the roots can’t take hold. When it does rain the cracks fill up as the soil expands, which means the soil is constantly moving, expanding and shrinking depending on the weather.
After another 10 minutes of experiencing ‘nowhere’ we got back into the bus. This is when another problem emerged. Our saving grace, the air conditioning, had stopped working. It was just one thing after another on this trip! First no TV, and now no air! We couldn’t even open the windows on the bus. The only thing we could do to allow some kind of air flow was to open the vents located on the top of the bus. Our bus driver apologized profusely, but I am pretty certain I saw the hint of a smile on his face. He said that we should just think of it as “an experience.” I can’t help but think it was all an elaborate ruse orchestrated by the tour company to make sure this tour would be memorable. Despite this newest setback, we didn’t complain (much). This was the outback, after all!
We were now driving down ‘Plenty Highway’ on the way to our sleeping place for the night. We would be staying at a cattle station called “Wirrilyerna Station”. During this drive I became extremely excited when I saw a half dozen or so emus. I shouted “Emus!” so everyone could share in my joy, but people barely looked up from what they were doing. A couple of them glanced half-heartedly out of the window but I think it was just to appease me. These were the same people that got all worked up over seeing kangaroos just minutes later. What gives here? Kangaroos are like the squirrel of the outback! They’re everywhere!
When we arrived at Wirrilyerna station, the first thing we were told was to expect some nighttime ‘music’. I think many of us were picturing some kind of hoedown or something. Nope. They had just rounded up a whole herd of cows that were ready to be branded and sold – and we would hear the mooing all night long. I have a video here so you can experience what we did:
The cattle station had a rustic beauty to it – especially around sunset. I did take a few amazing sunset pictures which I’ll share with you now. The reds were so much more vibrant than they were anywhere else because of all the dust in the air. The sun reflected off all that dust making the colors spread across the horizon.
They also had a few pigs that had free range of the entire station. They were not pretty creatures, even for pigs! This one took a nibble of my dress.
Dinner at the station was fantastic. We had spaghetti, mashed potatoes, corn, and green beans. For dessert we had fruit cocktail topped with ice cream and Milo. Yum! I hadn’t eaten this well since pancakes and eggs day in the outback!
I conversed with Allen during dinner when he told me something that I had never known before. He said that generally cattle stations will keep the female cows for breeding and only sell the males. Apparently, more often than not, when we eat beef we are actually eating the bulls and not the cows. This fact surprised me as I had always thought it was the other way around.
The people who owned and lived on the farm had quite a few pets that we got to meet. My favorite of the bunch was a pet kangaroo named Mary who they had rescued when she was a baby. They completely treat her like a member of their family. Every night she gets ice cream, and every morning she has toast and coffee. Have you ever seen a kangaroo drink coffee? Let me tell you – It’s adorable. They also had two beautiful dogs that got along quite well with Mary the kangaroo, a few sheep, and of course the pigs (and piglets!) It was such a wonderful environment. This was one place I could get used to living!
That night, when we had all finished dinner, we brought some folding chairs outside and did some star gazing. I learned how to use the southern cross (an Australian constellation) to determine what direction south was. A few of us also did some additional exploring and found an old old wool-cutting house where they used to sheer sheep. Years ago this farm had bred sheep instead of cattle, but switched when cattle became so much more profitable. They now only have a few sheep left.
When it was time for bed they told us that our sleeping quarters would be inside. I really missed sleeping outdoors under the stars so I dragged a cot outside and was once again amazed by how many stars I could see. That night was a new moon so it was even more spectacular. Millions and millions of stars. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay out there for long as it ended up getting pretty cold and windy so I eventually went back inside to my warm bed.
The next morning for breakfast I had a sugar cereal. I’m sure this doesn’t sound that interesting, but this was actually the first sugar cereal I’ve had since coming to Australia. What a treat! And of course Mary had to join us for her morning coffee.
Here is a picture of the baby cattle that was wandering around begging for treats in the morning:
And a picture of the sunrise – which was just as beautiful as the sunset:
After eating “brekky” we were back on the road with a quick stop at the town of Boulia. There we learned that Trevor (the main owner of the cattle station we spent the night at) owned five houses, the town’s butcher shop, and the bar in Boulia. He also used used to be the mayor. I suppose things like that are quite common in small towns!
The next highway we took was Kennedy highway. This highway would take us all the way to Cairns. It was on this highway that we had the chance to see camels! So maybe they were farmed camels, but still. Camels!
At another stop on our trip we went to a lookout point which had some very interesting graffiti. “I love cheese”? I guess there are worse things to love…
For lunch we stopped at the remote “Middletown Pub”, and had a (delicious!) barbecue lunch at the Hilton Hotel.
If you can’t read the picture, the sign says “No air conditioning, no TV, no pool, no charge!” There were quite a few interesting characters at the Hilton Hotel. It was a very remote area but the bar attracts a lot of tourists on their way to Cairns. They also have a few regulars who come by every day.
One of the guys we saw there told us he was making a documentary of some sort, so he wanted to take pictures of us tourists taking pictures. First he captured Becki (one of the girls in my group):
And when he saw me taking a picture of him taking a picture of her it was my turn:
Our next stop was at Winton, home of the Waltzing Matilda song and the Waltzing Matilda museum.
Now, if you have never hear of “Waltzing Matilda”, it’s Australia’s ‘unofficial’ national anthem. It was written by Banjo Patterson and his girlfriend (he wrote they lyrics and she wrote the music) and it became so popular that it was sung all over Australia. People would sing it when soldiers marched off to war, before football games, while drinking, and any other occasion you can think of.
The fascinating lyrics:
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”
Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”
Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong.
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag:
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”
Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred.
Down came the troopers, one, two, and three.
“Whose[N 1] is that [N 2] jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”
Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong.
“You’ll never take me alive!” said he
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”
The song is a true story of a drifter who many years ago had stolen a sheep. When he was caught he tried to swim away in a billabong (water hole) rather than be sent to jail, but ended up drowning while trying to get away.
To make sense of the lyrics – Matilda is another name for a swag (what I slept in when I was in the outback) so ‘Waltzing Matilda’ actually means walking along with your swag. As you walk, your swag will swing so it almost looks like it’s dancing, or “waltzing”. “Jumbuck” means sheep, and “tuckerbag” means food bag. “Squatter” means the person who lives on the land (in this case, it’s the guy who owned the sheep).
Many Australian people did want to make this song their official national anthem, but the Australian government refused, saying that they didn’t want a song about a thief who died while trying to escape as the national anthem. So instead “Advance Australia Fair” (which I talked about in one of my earlier posts) is the anthem. What’s funny about this is that while most Australians know the lyrics to “Waltzing Matilda”, most don’t know all the words to the official national anthem.
While looking around the Waltzing Matilda museum we found a disturbing mannequin. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. The exhibit was meant to show the clothing and living style of people back in the days of the swagman thief, but it looking like something odd happened to the neck of the mannequin so it was held on by tape. Maybe it originated from a prank?
In the closeup you can see that it almost looks like someone tried to slit her neck:
You can also see that her false eyelashes are falling off!
After we had finished with the museum we headed to our sleeping quarters for the night, which would be at a pub in Hughenton. We had shepherds pie for dinner, which was once again delicious. They made it a bit differently than what I am used to. Instead of mashed potatoes it had potato pieces and it was smothered in cheese. Sooo good. Full bellies makes for sound sleeping.
The next morning was our last day of this tour. We didn’t have much of an agenda today. We made a quick stop at a place called the porcupine gorge where we saw a gorge (surprises abound in Australia!) and some huge spiders. I’ll spare you the spider pictures this time.
For lunch we ate at Millstream Falls where I got to see my first kookaburra bird up close. They really do make a sound like laughing!
I think this one was hoping for a handout. Not from me, buddy!
I do have a video of the sound that the kookaburra bird makes for your viewing pleasure:
After lunch we walked over to the falls:
I also got a nice shot of a “Road Train”. In Australia they have huge trucks on these remote highways that carry things like cattle. They make huge dust storms whenever they pass by you.
And then we were back on the road again!
On our final stop before getting into Cairns we visited a tropical rain forest. But first, before I talk about the rainforest, check out this nifty hat. It has corks on strings which are meant to keep the flies out of your face. It is supposed to work because of the constant movement of the corks. Why didn’t I have one of these for my Heading Bush trip?
I really enjoyed the rain forest was really cool. This rainforest was more like how I remembered the rain forests in Costa Rica to be than the temperate rainforests that I had talked about in previous posts. We had about an hour hike through the forest before we reached our final destination – this waterfall:
Of course, we insisted on a swim!
Once again, I apologize if this post seemed rushed. I’m leaving Cairns tomorrow, so I wanted to try to be completely caught up before I go. All in all, this was another great tour. We didn’t do very much, but it was fun and educational. It definitely was a good way to travel from Alice Springs to Cairns – a step above taking a greyhound that would go straight through and not teach us anything.
Now onto the Cairns post!