Breaking Isolation

We have been here at our ‘Covid 19 bunker’ since early April, over 4 months, but in many ways it has felt longer, not because it’s hard to be here, far from it, but I think because we have no leaving date, & every time we listen to the Covid 19 news it seems we will be here ever longer. We continue to feel lucky & grateful that we are here & not at home in Victoria, currently experiencing a severe ‘2nd wave’ with ever more severe & necessary restrictions. It’s been sometime since the last blog, partly I think because we have ‘switched off’ a bit – a means of managing what feel like long term uncertainties. We have adapted to a ‘doing little & letting time pass’ strategy rather than a ‘keeping busy & distracting ourselves’ strategy & it seems to work ok on the whole. Daily life remains largely in isolation, leaving the property only to shop every few weeks in Mareeba 30 kms away, or to visit the tiny local sub post office to collect online purchases.

A pair of Australian Bustards in the paddock.
Cattle Egret

That said we haven’t done ‘nothing at all’, but the ‘to do’ list on the car & a few other bits & pieces were all completed fairly early on. Time has once again become an unclear commodity with us often competing with each other to be correct about the date & the day of the week. We each ‘win’ about equally – but if we were somehow magically transferred to a dementia clinic & given a test where you are asked questions to determine your time & place orientation, we may well be pronounced ‘too far gone’ by the medicos! In reality if a doctor asked me the time it’s quite possible I may answer by talking about birds! I wrote the following a month or two back – “I Haven’t worn a watch for more than 30 years. I can’t recall ever camping anywhere when the dawn chorus & daylight didn’t wake me, At our current location we have ‘alarm calls’ with a ‘snooze function’! At very first light, approx an hour before dawn the Bush Stone-curlews have a bit of a wail, along with an occasional howl from a dingo or two. Sometimes I sleep through & miss them, but when I hear them I smile, knowing I have another hour or more to snooze. Pretty much on dawn the Blue faced Honeyeaters start their early morning calls , different to their calls later in the day, & within minutes the real alarm clocks go off – the Laughing & the Blue Winged Kookaburras. As they tail off the melodic tones of Magpies & Pied Butcherbirds provide a background sound which remains for much of the day. Ah but what about the snooze function I hear you say. Well, from a little after dawn & for the next hour or two the Red Tailed black Cockatoos fly past overhead squawking in bunches of just 3 or 4 up to sometimes 100. Overall each morning we estimate around 500 fly by on their way to a river location to our east. (And if we somehow miss the fact that sunset is close later in the day, the calls from groups of Cockies returning alert us.”

Straw-necked Ibis on a dead tree at the farm.

We do continue to enjoy the peace & the bird-life (& a wonderful Facebook page #Birdthefeckathome for bird watchers in lockdown which has been a great resource for folk with similar interests worldwide to join together in good humoured support), but it is fair to say that this stationary ‘marking time’ lacks the regular excitement of the traveling/discovering lifestyle. Motivation to write the next blog post has suffered as a result, but there has now been sufficient occurring to warm up my typing finger! 🙂

Gina

First up is Gina. She has been living with us for over two months now. She’s a Kelpie, a ‘reject’ working dog from a cattle station. We were asked if we would like to have her with us for the duration of our stay here, or until a new owner could be found to take her as a pet. She’s a really smart dog, but had been ‘inherited’ on the station as an adult dog, & proved too headstrong to rely upon in a working situation. Essentially she would decide when she’d had enough & ‘down tools’ – not what is expected of dogs who do nothing unless commanded by the handler. She has settled into life with us with ease, & shown herself to be very laid back & adaptable to change. We have no doubt that she would make someone an excellent pet, but for the time being she’s ours and as such has been a great daily help in passing the time. We have taught her new commands, to fetch & taken her swimming and more recently camping. Yep she somehow helped us to break out of the self imposed ‘staying put comfort zone’ & we took off for what proved to be a wonderful 3 days away in the local hills we had been looking at daily from a distance. It woke us up! First time we had been camping since arriving in Far North Queensland at the end of September last year. Motivation to ‘recommission’ the Tvan – a big post hibernation clean up & re-stocking. By the time we were ready to leave we were ‘chomping at the bit”!

Female Red-winged Parrot
Male Red-winged Parrot

No great mileage was required but we were back into discovery mode, in country we had never seen. Hill country, old ‘gold country’, dry & plastered with trees, & occasional painted car bonnets fixed to gates or nailed to trees declaring ‘Keep Out, Cameras & Guns in use’. We had been pre-warned & regaled with tales of it being ‘Banjo Country’ where folk have been known to disappear presumed to have fallen foul of possessive rotten toothed gold miners & marijuana growers. All overdone tales no doubt, but they did no harm to inject more interest & intrigue for us!

Emu Creek at Emuford
Camp at Emu Creek
Tiny Striated Pardalote at Emu Creek
Scarlet Honeyeater on Grevillia at Emu Creek.

The Emu Creek is a permanent river in them thar hills & we found the perfect spot to set up camp along side it at Emuford, once a thriving little gold community, but now no more than the bridge which superceded the ford, a sign saying Emuford beside the dirt road & evidence of a few remaining footings of what had once been dwellings where trees have now grown up. The river was scenic & with easy entry & exit for Gina who never needed any encouragement to have a swim. We stayed for three nights, enjoying the solitude & the birds, walking & lazing, but the lazing had a different quality to the ‘lazing’ back on the farm – the context was different – it had taken little to re-connect us with the adventurous lifestyle we had placed on hold. ……….. so instead of driving home the way we’d come we decided to take a potentially more interesting route – to find our way through a maze of 4wd tracks over the hills, once gold routes, many now disused & others used only by station owners. We had little idea of whether we would be able to get through, the couple of folk we’d asked about the tracks had said “haven’t been out that way for years, but it was pretty rough back then”. The trick, we thought, would be to pick the point that we turned back before we found ourselves in stuck a situation where turning our almost 10 metre long car & Tvan combo was too hard, but hoped this would be unnecessary. Most of the tracks we followed were actually very civilised, to the point of having direction signs as well as reasonably smooth surfaces. The last few kilometres changed however – we got through, but it took several hours & the use of two conflicting GPS navigation systems to travel a relatively short distance ‘as the crow flies’. Pretty rough & very steep was the name of the game, hills requiring ‘commitment’ & confidence. Long, boulder strewn, washed out with drop offs just feet away going so far down the bottom could not be seen. We climbed to over 1000 metres more than once. In wet weather it would have been impassable as often washed out sections of track meant diverting into & along creek beds & then climbing up steep banks to rejoin the track. In short it was challenging but tremendous fun. We were tired by the time we got back to the farm having taken 6 hours to cover what we had thought would take one third of that, much of the time in low range 4wd, but we were ‘buzzing’. Such adventure right on our doorstep! Since then folk have expressed surprise that it was possible to have towed anything over those hills, but the reality was that the Patrol & Tvan handled it all with relative ease. The challenge was mainly psychological. Just a few weeks after this little outing an opportunity to get away for longer, without Gina travelling in the passenger foot well at MrsTea’s feet arose. We still had the ‘spark’ & didn’t hesitate to take it!

Wild horses can be a hazard when driving on the back roads in the local hills.

When the Queensland Covid 19 border restrictions were lifted, & travel restrictions within the state were eased, with communities on Cape York re-opening at the same time, we felt it was a recipe for a disaster. Cape York 4wd social media appeared to harbour a large percentage of ‘redneck cowboys’, ignorant selfish people, often with freely expressed racist views, for whom being able to pursue their planned drive up the Cape trumped any care about the risk of taking the virus into highly vulnerable & remote aboriginal communities with totally inadequate health resources to cope with any virus outbreak. We felt it was only a matter of time before a catastrophe unfolded. The tourism lobby, who’s member businesses were hurting badly from lack of income, were pushing the Queensland government to lift restrictions prematurely & en masse, preventing proper evaluation of these actions. It was also clear to us that there are significant numbers of folk in our community who simply cannot be trusted to behave in a manner with compassion, for the greater good & who would take advantage of the changes without care. We would have loved to be driving up to the tip of Cape York, but we did not want to be part of a tourist influx which could so easily wipe out entire aboriginal generations & the knowledge & culture they carry which gives meaning to the lives of the younger generations. We could not live with ourselves if we thought our actions had been part of bringing about of yet another generational trauma to people already struggling with the multiple generational traumas inflicted upon them since white colonisation.

When the opportunity arose, it offered us a means to explore a part of Cape York off the ’tourist trail’ where we could be confident we were not going to be contributing to an impending genocidal-like catastrophe. Strong words, but that is how we felt about what seemed just a matter of time away. For a number of reasons we now feel more optimistic about that situation, in part because of further Queensland government actions, in part because of actions by communities to protect themselves, whilst still picking up limited tourist income, & in part because it appears that much of the keyboard ‘bravado’ & hatred I was exposed to has not actually resulted in the declared intent for hordes of red-necked fools to take the actions they aggressively claimed as their right. Nevertheless, at the time of the offer arising, our concern level was still very high, but the possibility seemed to give us an acceptable & desirable alternative.

Approximate route

The offer was for us to stay on a cattle station in the south west of the Cape. We could reach it using ‘back tracks’ via two aboriginal communities on the west coast, one not generally a tourist destination (Kowanyama) & another (Pormpuraaw) which although ‘open’ has effectively closed itself off to tourists this year by closing all it’s available campgrounds. From the main road going up the Cape (the Peninsular Developmental Road – PDR) it is a 500km return trip to Pormpuraaw, too far to go to make it worthwhile without staying there, & camping had been the only accommodation option. We were confident that our isolation & Covid protected living ensured that we presented no risk to the two communities & that we would not be exposed to risk ourselves whilst there. The station is owned by relatives of the owners of the farm we are caretaking here in Mutchilba. Folk we knew to have also been isolating. The possibility of leaving Gina in Mutchilba came about when friends of the owner planned to stay here to carry out a few renovations for them. Leaving Gina was necessary as we would need to pass through a National Park on our way up (no dogs allowed) & we were also not keen to take her to a spot where we knew we would have to keep her tethered at all times to prevent her swimming & risking becoming croc tucker. They were happy to look after Gina here in our absence & so at fairly short notice we pored over maps, & prepared the car & Tvan for another ‘outing’. Woohoo!

Gina took to her new temporary owners like a tart to jam. We had no qualms as we hitched up & drove away, heading west toward Chillagoe & the beginning of the Burke Developmental Road (BDR) which winds first west & then south west eventually to the fishing community of Karumba on the Gulf & the nearby town of Normanton close to 600kms away. Our memories of Chillagoe from over a decade ago were of a warm friendly sleepy little village, surrounded by impressive limestone caves & bluffs. The limestone (Devonian coral reef from when the country was once under an ancient sea) remains, but we found the place very busy with weekend tourists from Cairns & the welcome was a little soured by what seemed like money grabbing attitudes without smiles so we practiced our social distancing and hand sanitising, but moved on after a brief but overpriced lunch stop. To be fair I expect that the place was gritting it’s teeth with the influx of potentially infected outsiders necessary to provide needed income. Once a centre of copper mining & smelting, the place also has an on/off ‘mining’ history of marble in recent decades with many opportunities either side of the town to see sites with huge rectangular blocks of marble sitting on the ground near to holes in the ground where it has been cut out like peat from a bog, (where it formed from ancient volcanic activity), presumably awaiting for acceptable prices in the marble market. Compared to our previous visit there was far more of it sitting around, but we remain uncertain if this was indicative of a healthy or unhealthy market, which I recall us being told in the past was a particularly fickle one. Health & safety requirements appear to have had an impact in the intervening years with previously unrestricted access to the extraction sites from the side of the road no longer possible.

The BDR was a nice surprise, we had ridden motorcycles along it for 15 or so kms out of Chillagoe years ago & it had been very rough. This time it was in far better condition with a loose gravel top instead of the red dirt with body & vehicle jarring corrugations. 15km out of town it got better still as we once again reached ‘virgin ground’ (for us) & passed the turn off to tourist drawcard of the Mungana caves. Around mid afternoon we took a turn off the BDR to where we found a pleasant sandy camp spot alongside the Mitchell River (which runs west from the Atherton Tablelands right across the base of Cape York, eventually emptying into the Gulf, with many other smaller rivers joining it en route). Reaching our camp spot required a river crossing, but this was an easy affair in shallow water running over a narrow concrete causeway. Known as Dumdruff Crossing as it provides access to Dumdruff Station. Once across it became clear that the river we had just crossed was merely a small channel in a far wider dry & sandy river bed. We had passed large piles of sand on the way to the river & it now became apparent that heavy machinery is used annually to remove huge amounts of sand from over the causeway each year, as wells as to lay a drive-able surface across the rest of the river bed to allow vehicle crossing until the next flood. With tyres deflated driving along the soft sand to where we chose to camp was all good so long as momentum was maintained. This became difficult as we we had to turn into the Paperbark trees & negotiate some low hanging branches. Result was a temporary bogging, resolved with letting more air out of the tyres, use of our shovel & some ’skilful’ driving. 🙂 When we set up camp 50 metres later (on harder sand & facing toward the road to aid out morning departure) we had almost gotten over the slightly fraught nature of our arrival. Part of setting up includes pulling out the slideout kitchen from the Tvan. MrsTea immediately noticed one of the gas stove knobs was missing. It could only be behind the kitchen in the inaccessible bowels of the Tvan & needed to be retrieved if at all possible to prevent it disappearing further and jamming the slide mechanism, making the big job of complete kitchen removal necessary. Physical contortion & torches located the missing knob & Macgyver-like ingenuity saw a neodymium magnet taped to a length of fencing wire retrieve the errant knob gradually in painful multiple attempts. There was relief, but breaking my old sidecutters trying to cut the fencing wire had been a downer. It also proved most inconvenient. One of MrsTea’s fingers had been swollen for a day or two, a ring finger, making removal of the ring impossible. Oil & soap had not helped. Next morning it was worse, but still with a very small clearance at the base of the finger. We decided the ring had to come off before the swelling made it tighter still. Initially we tried winding fishing line around the finger, painful, more for her than me, but two attempts failed & we decided the only option left was to cut the ring off. That’s where the sidecutters would have been ideal, but I’d broken them & one sided side cutters are about as useful as a hammer made of jelly. After searching through my tools the only option we had was to cut it off using a hacksaw. A nail smoothing ‘emery board’, extracted from MrsTea’s ‘secret ladies bag of many wonders’ could just be squeezed under the ring to protect the finger & palm from being sawn, & the deed was done. The metal in the gold ring was surprisingly hard, & it took a fair time before the job was finished, but we both agreed it had been the best thing to do. New sidecutters are on the shopping list, & I can say that I am not cut out to be a surgeon despite the compliant nature of MrsTea’s patient status! One could be forgiven for thinking, reading this, that as camps go, this was a disastrous one. Not so, it was a very pleasant shaded riverside spot which we would happily use again if out that way. Driving out in the morning was no problem, we crossed the water before stopping to re-inflate the tyres, and continuing on to what we thought might be a worthwhile camp spot at another crossing around 100kms further on.

Dumdruff Crossing, Mitchell River
A pleasant shady waterside camp spot.
Beyond the narrow strip of Paperbark trees along the waterside, the full width of the river bed was revealed. Evidence in the trees shows water levels almost submerge them.

This 100km section of road deteriorated within a short distance. Long & frequent stretches of bulldust filled the road making them impossible to avoid. Bulldust, for the unfamiliar among our readers, is extremely fine dust, like talcum powder, which settles over the road making ruts & holes look smooth. Driving into it creates enormous thick dust clouds which if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction can obliterate vision ahead. Using windscreen wipers & washers simply creates mud across the windscreen instantly. Additionally the bulldust hides any rough surface, making the situation one which requires slow & careful driving, to avoid damage to the vehicle whilst the dust sucks the power from the car like soft sand. Essentially it is like driving into ‘dry water’. It is a driving situation that the 6 cylinder 4.2 litre motor of our car manages very well, & to be honest I’d prefer bulldust over corrugations any day! We were told later that this 100km section of the road has always been ‘bad for bulldust’. What makes it so I’m not sure. We experienced similar in one place north of Mt Dare a couple of years ago, where the car gave us confidence such that we can now just ‘enjoy’ the experience as part of the outback adventure, but one time I really should stop before entering it to take a photo. Once into it the camera remains safe in it’s case – so no pics this time unfortunately. Video footage of driving in it would be fairly spectacular!

Dunbar Crossing

Hughes Crossing, or Dunbar Crossing as it is more widely known, because it is on Dunbar Station, is unusual. At least to us it was, having never seen anything like it before. It is a wide crossing, wider than any we have previously taken, enough that when you are out in the middle of the flowing river & look side to side it is like being in the middle of a large lake. The bottom of the river here is all sand, making it un-driveable except for one thing – a river-wide heavy duty rubber mat which has been laid, following the contours of the sand, & somehow secured in place against the flow of the water. Again the road approaching the water was lined with multiple huge piles of sand excavated from the river, presumably annually to uncover the mat. Luckily as we arrived we were able to watch another vehicle crossing, allowing us to judge the water depth which was reassuring. Although the depth varied a little with the ups & downs of the sand, average depth was less than the height of our wheels, & water flow was fairly gentle. It was nevertheless our first crossing ever where the water has been higher than the bottom of the car doors, & was a test of the cab’s waterproofness. We only went there to camp for the night & had no need to cross, but we were there & crossing for fun was the order of the day – excuse was to wash away some of the bulldust! 🙂 Over & back without problem before setting up camp for the night. Not a drop inside the cab. Phew! It was entertaining watching the occasional driver unfamiliar with the crossing & without the benefit of seeing others cross first weighing up their options. Those coming from the far side would have a journey of several hundred kilometres back where they had come from if they didn’t cross. All did, but one chap paced back & forth with his wife & young daughter for 45 minutes before taking the plunge. At camp we saw the largest goanna we have ever seen scurry off into the bushes as we drove in. MrsTea named him ‘Rustle’ & we hoped we’d see more of him, but never did, but enjoyed birdlife & the many roos & wallabies which came to the water to drink.

Overnight camp by Dunbar Crossing
Sunset at Dunbar Crossing
Sunrise looking over the crossing
Rainbow Bee Eaters were everywhere.
Return crossing prior to setting up camp on the far bank, to the right of the exit.

Instead of returning to the BDR, we took a turn north west, on the southern side of the river, toward Kowanyama. As with much of the BDR, the roadside saw frequent water sources for cattle, shallow bulldozer scrapes which fill from rain & sometimes floodwater during wetter times of the year. Often no more than a foot deep, with some dry, some full, we debated how they hadn’t all just dried from evaporation, it being a month or three since the last rains, wondering if station owners cart water to them from the river. Apparently not we later learned leaving the reason for some dry & some full a mystery. Closer to Kowanyama, (& onward from there) the lagoons which replaced the scrapes were obviously natural. Kowanyama means ‘Place of many waters’, it is country where multiple rivers flood far & wide every year creating extensive swamp lands, which as they dry leave permanent & semi permanent lagoons dotted across the landscape, often pretty with water lilies, but dangerous as the often provide habitat for crocs, especially the prettier ones with lily cover. We stopped in Kowanyama to top up our fuel tanks – a self serve credit card arrangement which we have become familiar with, & attempted to seek permission to camp on aboriginal land 35kms out of town. The local cop & general store staff directed us to the ‘Lands Office’ but it was locked up with no one there, So we just let folk know where we were going & left town after consulting with both the cop & the airfield manager about our next Mitchell River crossing, the ‘infamous’ Shelfo crossing. I was anxious about it, & we had come this far prepared to turn back if we felt there was risk of flooding & damage to our vehicle. My research had only been able to turn up one video showing a wide river, with water all the way across & one written account of making the crossing & both over a decade old. The fact that there was so little info available suggested this was not a commonly used route other than by locals travelling to & from their nearest neighbours in Pormpuraaw 125kms north. The article warned of the need to take the correct line to avoid large metre deep holes under the fast flowing water. Before advising me, both the cop & the airfield manager checked out what we were driving before telling me “No worries, you’ll be right”, “Turn right onto the rocks at the far end of the water” the cop added, “It’ll be obvious where to go”. This was reassuring, but my confidence drained somewhat when we arrived at the crossing. For a start it looked nothing whatsoever like the one I’d seen in the video! A tunnel-like cutting led down to the fastest flowing water I have ever thought about crossing, impossible to gauge it’s depth, & stretching for around, at a guess 30 metres or so. On the far side of this a car height cutting had been excavated through sand, leaving a shallow water covering over what appeared to be a base of sand. The exit onto the rocks the cop had talked of was out of sight. In my head were visions of possibly getting across the first deeper water without being washed away only to find ourselves with wheels sinking into the soft water covered sand on the other side. Camping close by & hoping to observe others making the crossing first seemed like the most sensible strategy. The little positive voice in my head continued to tell me that if locals used the crossing it must be quite do-able, but out here alone a gung-ho approach was a high risk one. Wading across to check for ourselves was risky too. Unknown waters in known croc territory! As the sun set we were treated to a wonderful fiery sky & an event we have not previously witnessed. Mostly we see the pretty Rainbow Bee Eaters singly or in pairs, As the sun set a flock of what we estimated to be 60 to 100 birds came in to roost just a few metres from our camp, the sound of that many Bee eaters together was surprisingly loud. We thought they would stay for the night, but they were gone before it was fully dark.

First view of Shelfo Crossing
Looking from the water’s edge failed to inspire confidence.
And so we set up camp overlooking the river in the hope we might see others cross. Trees in the background are on the far bank of the river. Crossing is 50 metres to the left, exit is hidden by trees, but is approx middle of the photo on the horizon. That’s me with a fishing rod down on the bank – usual result – but “ya gotta be in it to win”.
All mod cons. Bullbar doubles as a clothes hanger , towel rail, & even a wash basin with the aid of an empty ice cream container. Hot water heated as we drive.
The sunset was dramatic!

As it turned out we were able to observe six cars, all local, cross at different times before our departure next morning. The first two coming from the far side. On both occasions I ran to the entry/exit point, watched them approach & then flagged them down to get tyre pressure info. “No need to let tyres down” the first one said, the second added “That’s solid rock under the sand over there” & pointing to the excavated section across the other side of the fast flowing water. The water turned out to be shallower than it looked, 2/3rds tyre height & with a stony base. We even saw one of the local cars conduct a 3 point turn in the fast running water, so by the time I drove into it my confidence levels were high. For 20 or 30 kms after crossing the river we were in the Erk Oykangand National Park, once known as the Alice-Mitchell Rivers NP, & referred to locally as ‘3 ways’. It was the nicest bit of driving of the journey, intimate narrow tracks & two-wheel tracks in & out & around trees, up & down, finally crossing the Alice River (not running, but across a narrow strip of sand put down to form a small causeway) reminiscent of some parts of the Munja Track we drove in the Kimberley last year. Once out of the national park the dirt road was like a highway, albeit for a number of car-deep washouts, often unmarked & full width across the built up road, capable of severely ruining the day of the unwary. Small ‘detours’ into the bush offered a way around each. For the final 60 odd kms to where the road joins the Pormpuraaw- Musgrave Road (known as Strathgordon Rd) the road had either just had work or was in process of being worked on. Although dirt it was hard packed & super smooth, easily as good as the best sealed road, taking us through savannah grasslands & woodlands, dotted with graveyard-like sharp pointy termite mounds & lagoons. We stopped at a lagoon to try to photograph a pair of brolgas with the lily covered lagoon in the background. 6 metres out from the water’s edge were two large & fairly deep crocodile shaped impressions in the drying mud! I realised this as I stepped back out of one telling MrsTea to come away from the water’s edge as I did so!

A local car. The depth was nothing like I’d feared, & the river bed fairly level.
And seeing the car like this, not sinking into soft sand was a relief.
Next was the Alice River – single channel of water running through the wider river bed.
A straightforward dry crossing thanks to a little work to make it so by the communities.
Well…… almost dry.
South of Pompuraaw.
Big Skies over an ‘overgrown graveyard’ which went as far as we could see. This is swamp country in the wet season, flood plains from the numerous rivers.
One of many roadside lagoons left by the wet season & often home to Saltwater crocodiles.

We arrived in Pormpuraaw, driving across extensive salt mud flats , a metre or two above them on a long 2 lane causeway. It made me think of a similar causeway known as the Strood, back in England, off the Essex coast joining the mainland to the island of Mersea where my old friend John lived (& still does). Here it was on a larger scale, & tropical by virtue of the temperature & a few palm trees at one end, but like with Mersea, it was a nice way to enter a place. The day was my birthday & Pormpuraaw immediately impressed us as a nice place to be. It’s tidy, clean & paved ’town centre’ a credit to it’s 500 odd residents. Across the central square the unexpected sight of a fish & chip van with schoolkids & adults alike lined up buying lunch, saw us decide to celebrate the beginning of my 63rd year on the planet with a fish & chip lunch. We had a phone signal & I was talking to our son who was wishing me happy birthday when a ranger pulled up & began talking to MrsTea. At this point we had been in town for no more than 3 minutes. Although not officially closed, the town was acting as though it were, quite worried about the possibility of the virus being brought into town. Clearly our Victorian plates on the car stood out, hence the ranger visit. After explaining we have been up north for over two years, in Mutchilba & the Daintree since last September & had come up via Kowanyama, & that we would be moving on to Balurga Station later in the day, he smiled & said “Ah ok, you’re virtually locals then”. I’d noticed, whilst still on the phone two white folk standing across the street, looking at us, talking, looking again & talking….. very obviously. After I said goodby to my son, I got out of the the car & walked across to them & said “I guess you’ve noticed our Vic plates & are wondering if we might have the lurgy” with what I hoped might be a reassuring grin. “No no” he said, “We were wondering how you got a permit to get in”. For a moment I wondered, but replied with a degree of confidence, that no permit was required, explaining what I had read elsewhere before we had left the farm. The discussion which ensued suggested that he had been told he needed to obtain a permit to enable a friend from Cairns to come up to help him with his work there, but the likelihood was that he had been misinformed by someone in authority who he did not have a great relationship with. After the ranger had left, I guess it was obvious to others around that we had been deemed acceptable & not a risk. We found folk most helpful & friendly. Likely we are the only tourist they will see in Pormpuraaw this year. Before lunch we went down to the beach, to see the Gulf from it’s east coast & to do some croc spotting & as it turned out Brolga spotting. Printed flyers in town warned of the presence of large crocs down by the boat ramp & advised folk to take care with their kids & dogs. Once there we could see why. They would make a nice snack! It’s not everyone who can make claim to seeing Brolgas on a beach either! We returned to town & bought what are probably the nicest fish & chips I can recall having, & the generous portions & very reasonable prices saw us sharing what we couldn’t manage with the gatecrashers to my birthday party, a tribe of town dogs who sat patiently in hope around us. The first thrown chip resulted in much snarling & growling, with the dominant dog standing over another, teeth at it’s throat. We learned to throw to the dominant dog first, & then quickly to the others whist he was still eating. It was a good system & all got fair shares, including the one initially pinned to the ground. After the party broke up we left town for the station.

One of two River Estuaries near Pormpuraaw – There are at least six saltwater crocs in this pic!
The Radjah Shellducks don’t seem bothered by the croc
A larger specimen on banks of the estuary – probably one of those the flyers in town warned of.
Brolgas on the beach
Pormpuraaw birthday party.

About 110kms east along the Pormpuraaw-Musgrave road, forest lined all the way, we saw no other vehicles. Turning south onto the station track, we followed it through the trees for 30kms to the homestead, where we stayed with the owners overnight, camped in the Tvan, before they took us a further 25kms through the trees to one of their waterholes on the Coleman River (which defines the northern boundary of the property). I can’t recall the property size, but it’s in the hundreds of square miles. Stocking rate however is a maximum of 1 cow to 50 acres. When they talk of fencing a paddock it is not a grassy paddock one might see in Victoria where the stocking rates might be several cows to 1 acre. A paddock is perhaps 50 or a 100 square miles of forest! Currently the numbers of cattle are at a low ebb after major losses in a big flood last year. No rich landowners in fancy houses here. This is battler country where survival is the name of the game, & the lifestyle as important as the business. A very different way to farm. A waterhole is a section of river which retains water when most of the river system runs dry until it floods again in next rains, spreading way beyond it’s banks to revitalise the surrounding country. These are generally shady spots which harbour ‘concentrated’ ecosystems. The waterhole we were taken to they call Blazeaway. Approx 1 kilometre long & quite deep. ‘Home’ for our time there. A donkey boiler on the steep sandy riverbank in conjunction with a spare 12v water pump we carry, & powered from the car’s solar system provided us with washing up water, & hot showers without need to cart water in buckets. Mostly we used water from our own tanks for drinking, but boiled river water made a very acceptable cup of tea. Our days were taken up with a variety of activities in addition to the necessary chore of firewood collection. Walking, fishing, photography, bird watching, croc watching, reading, lazing etc. I finally caught my first Barramundi, two in fact. We also ate Cherabin (Giant freshwater Prawns) daily from the nets we had use off (Yum). Birdlife was prolific, although I only added 1 to my previously unseen list (Large-billed Gerygone – pronounced Jerrig-on-ee) a tiny bird with a persistent repetitive call, easily recognisable, but almost impossible to photograph as is spends most of it’s time in dense leaf cover & rarely stays still for more than a second or two at a time. They were all around us the whole time we were there constantly teasing me! 🙂 Fishing was enjoyable despite my often farcical failures. Leaving the many snagged on rock & tree occurrences to one side, one day in particular stands out. If it had been videoed & put onto Youtube it is easy to imagine the mirth it would engender causing it to go viral around the world. Try to imagine me on a steep riverbank covered in coarse & deep sand, a fishing line with a tiny hook tied to a stick, trying a variety of baits to encourage the easily visible Archer fish close to the water’s edge to become bait for me to use on my rod. I thought this would be a simple affair, but it turns out that Archer fish are both wily, & choosy about what they’ll eat & it took an hour of concentrated effort to finally hook one. As I pulled it up the bank, – (I’m sitting in the sand several metres from the water’s edge being ‘croc-wise) my moment of final success was ruined by the damn fish jumping off the hook. It was flapping about, almost as if in slow motion back toward the water. I made an unsuccessful lunge to re-capture my prize & a second as it hit the water & swam away to freedom. Me …. I found myself laying at full stretch, face in the water & my hat floating nearby. My feet significantly higher than my head, & me scrabbling to get out of the water as quickly as possible in case a croc was aware of my plight, but getting no purchase in the loose sand, my efforts only serving to make where I was steeper still! I recall thinking I would need to roll my entire body into the water in order to then crawl out head first, but before I could do so MrsTea came to the rescue, pulling me up to a point where I could move under my own steam. It was around the moment that I was safe that her cackling laughter began, & I could do nothing other than see the funny side & join in her amusement. We both just sat at the top of the bank laughing & laughing ……… & then laughing some more.
We did see a number of crocs, all of the freshwater variety, some quite large for freshies, up to 3 metres long. A large saltie has inhabited Blazeaway for the past several years running but is now thought to be in another waterhole on the station, but has not yet actually been seen this year so there can be no certainty. This is a croc large enough to take a cow. Mostly the freshies we saw would be sunbaking on the shores opposite our camp, but late afternoon walks along the low cliff banks would disturb those catching the days last sun rays from small patches of dry ground at the base of the cliffs, or in the the gullies which ran down to the water. Often they would hear us before we could see them & all we’d would hear was the splash as they rushed into the water, & see their ripples. We estimated a population of maybe a couple of dozen. When we arrived I’d mentioned to the owner that although I had seen Archer fish many times I had yet to see the them spitting water. This is what gives them their name. They squirt water from their mouths to knock insects such as dragonflies into the water, so they can eat them. She smiled at me & said nothing. Around sunset we had a daily ’show’, with squirting up & down the river quite extensive, mostly averaging 300mm to 400mm out of the water, but some reached the height of a man! And some seemed capable of ‘rapid fire’!

Home at Blazeway waterhole
Great Egret
‘Hoover’ was a regular visitor. Here he examines my tackle box for any fishy morsels.
Finding 4 of these under the chairs we were sitting in was a little disconcerting initially, but we grew to trust him.

We ate well on these Cherabin, catching several most days. This was the first & of fairly modest size compare to the average!
Blue winged Kookaburra. Beauty with an evil eye.
Looking down the waterhole as the sun makes it’s daily appearance
Part of what I called ‘Our magical forest’.
Striated Heron
A Nankeen Night Heron in daytime mode. With a spotlight we also found them fishing at the water side at night.
Blue-faced Honeyeater. They eat bugs & insects too, & find plenty in the layers of the Paperbark tree’s soft bark.
Crocs were numerous, but we saw none until we had been there close to a week, although we heard their splashes through the nights, bigger & louder than the jumping fish. After a week they felt comfortable to sun bathe in our presence. We only saw Freshwater crocs like this one.
Red-backed Fairy-wren. I love these striking little birds. I recall the first I saw in the west Kimberley. It was at close quarters & I just marveled at it’s colours & the fact that it existed. This chap lived with his harem of females in thick woodland, lots of grasses set back a little from the waterhole.
Forest Kingfisher. These were common, often appearing to be black & white unless in the bright sun. They are good models, as they will sit & watch you.
More forest colour from the Rainbow Lorikeets. We often saw them fly noisily overhead, but this was the only time we saw them land. A bird which has adapted to life around humans, but these are forest birds.
At one end of the waterhole was the ‘Magical Forest’. This at the other end I thought more of as the ‘Magical garden’. 🙂
A Whistling Kite at it’s nest
View of the waterhole from it’s western end (our camp was close to the eastern end).
Brolgas in the bush
‘Mr Grumpy’. Far chunkier & heavier set than ‘Hoover’ & certainly not comfortable around humans. He would hiss loudly & threateningly if you went within 15 metres of him. Despite his extra girth, unlike Hoover & many other Goannas we have seen he did not walk with his tail dragging behind him, but held in the air parallel to the ground. Quite a feat! Here he has stopped, raised himself up to look bigger, & puffed out his neck whilst hissing loudly – ‘Goanna for ‘bugger off & leave me alone’.
White-bellied Sea Eagle. There were two pairs of these large majestic birds nested at the waterhole, one at each end. On occasions they entertained us by harrassing some of the many Whistling Kites, seemingly for fun.
Yellow Honeyeater

We had a couple of visits from the owner, but mostly it was just the two of us. It was a wonderful feeling knowing we were privileged to enjoy a place that few folk get to see, & that for 100’s of kilometres in every direction the forests continued as they have for milenia, with man’s mark minimal. And that we are welcome back whenever we want. We left with our tanks full, filled by hand pump from the stations 200 litre drum supplies knowing we would have sufficient for the entire journey home, our water tanks topped up from the good bore water & our fridge replenished with fruit. Thank you so much Marriete, we will be back again sometime.

Instead of returning the way we had come, we decided upon a route ‘home’ still largely avoiding the PDF for all bar 24kms. Back on the Pompuraaw – Musgrave road we continued east to the PDF to Musgrave homestead where we dropped back into covid aware behaviours & went in to buy hot pies for lunch. Musgrave homestead is a tourist enterprise providing camping, rooms, alcohol & fuel. The owners were among the the most prominent calling for the relaxing of the Covid travel restrictions & the re-opening of the Cape. What we found surprised us, far fewer tourists than we expected, both on the PDF & at Musgrave. Just a handful really. We were pleased to see this. The 24km drive down the PDF, usually reputed to be terribly corrugated, was good. A smooth surface on a big wide dusty road, consistent with a lack of traffic. We turned off westward onto the Dixie Road, & stayed the night at Artemis Station which has a small campground. Two other small parties there for the night. Great donkey boiler hot showers. Tom & Sue Shephard who own the station have put a great deal of effort into rescuing a species of parrot endemic to just a small area around them from extinction. The Golden-shouldered Parrots were our reason for stopping by, & we were not disappointed. Sue has a feeding station for them, making finding them fairly easy.

Female Golden-shouldered Parrot
Male Golden-shouldered Parrot.
Pair – Golden-shouldered Parrots
Plumed Whistling ducks
Plenty of gates to open & shut when passing through the stations. Here we are entering Killarney station.
‘Stealth Camp’ tucked away in the bush just off a side road – last night of the trip

Part way down the Dixie Road, we turned east onto Kimba Road & then south via Fairlight station & the Palmerville Rd eventually recrossing the Mitchell river for the last time at the Gordon Arnold Crossing on Palmerville Station – a dry concrete causeway. These roads, varied from large to small roads, all dirt & all in good condition, becoming far more undulating through frequent steep sided gullies south of Fairlight station, & running through the foothills of what is the Northern end of Australia’s Great Dividing Range which follows the East coast all the way down almost to the south eastern Victorian coast, right to where we used to live atop the Strzelecki Ranges at the very bottom of the Great dividing Range. It was a long day’s drive, we wanted to stop earlier, but found few suitable spots to do so, eventually taking a side road off the Burke Developmental Road we had rejoined about 100kms west of Chillagoe where we found ourselves a cheeky stealth camp for the night just before dusk, & left early the following morning leaving just tyre prints behind, arriving back to a Gina welcome several hours later. Good to be back, but great to have been away!

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