Portland Roads – Cape York

Our time at Wildwings came to an unexpectedly rapid end.

The owners, Barb & Allen had returned & we’d spent a few enjoyable days with each other, us living in the house & they in the caravan which had been their home during their 4 months away.
Our deadline to leave was the flight north to Lockhart River, leaving from Cairns Airport. Our expectation had been that we would leave the Daintree around mid morning to be at the airport at the check in time of 1pm, after dropping off our car at a storage facility in Cairns. Our Tvan remaining Barb & Allen’s shed.

The rain started in the late evening & continued throughout the night. The phone rang as dawn was breaking. It was Barb phoning from the caravan. “We think you should get out as quickly as you can” she said. I noted a certain desperation in her voice. “The water has come up & is still rising & if you are not quick you may not get out” . We rushed around packing our belongings haphazardly, having expected to do so leisurely after breakfast. There was no time for breakfast! With everything flung into the two suitcases we had bought specially for the occasion, it was quick & breathless hugs all round, into the car & off, leaving with Allen’s instructions “If you get through the water covering our driveway keep right as you approach the bridge over Barratt Creek, there will be water flowing over the road but it will be deeper on the left.”

The driveway dips into a low lying section of the property, over a small bridge, before climbing up to the sealed Daintree Road. With all the previous rainfall which had filled the wetlands on the property we had never seen water come over the top of it. The difference now was two things. The soil no longer able to absorb more water & what turned out to be a bit over 200mm having fallen during the night! We drove into the water, half expecting to see Betty come swimming by! With the water above the bottom of our car’s bullbar it was the deepest water we have driven our car in. Of course the car managed just fine (save for the squeal of a slipping wet belt on the drive upward to the main road after exiting the water, & later finding our front number plate inexplicably bent & mangled – uncertain how or why, we drove slow & steady).

Allen’s prediction about water flowing over the bitumen was correct. We stayed on the right as advised, & crossed the fast flowing water, probably no more than 300mm deep. Looking down the bank to our right, there was no bank in sight, the green leafy swamp beyond could no longer be seen, just a large ‘lake’ of water covering it & overflowing across the road. Having crossed this water, we were again on dry(ish) bitumen, behind us the water we had just crossed & ahead of us the Barratt Creek bridge, only now all we could see of the bridge was the top half of the top section of armco running either side of the road. Further ahead we could see another ute, parked, lights on, obviously waiting to see if we could cross before trying for themselves. With insufficient room to turn around without risk of becoming stuck in deeper water, water rising immediately behind us & in front of us, & the need to make the flight we were committed to crossing the creek. Although we knew the depth on the bridge itself was probably a little less than the height of our wheels & that the armco would prevent us being washed off the bridge it was nevertheless a tad daunting to look at, but we hesitated only briefly, knowing that the sooner we crossed the better. As we left the water on the other side, we pulled up alongside the waiting ute. It’s driver asked whether we thought he’d get across. “I’d reckon you’d manage ok, but keep left after you’ve crossed the bridge” I replied. We kept going, with me feeling a twinge of guilt once out of sight of the floodwater that we hadn’t stayed to ensure he crossed OK. I blame the adrenaline pumping through my body for the decision to leave him, but thankfully we heard no subsequent reports of a drowned ute, in fact we don’t even know if he attempted the crossing or turned back.

We stopped at the Smithfield shopping centre just north of Cairns for breakfast, with plenty of time before needing to be at the airport. Whilst there one of the owners of the property we were flying north to look after phoned. It was Sheree. “I’m in Brisbane, but Greg has emailed me from home. There has been a lot of rain & he might not be able to get across one of the creeks to drive down & pick you up” she said. Greg had emailed her because their phone had gone out with the weather, but he still had satellite internet. “If the creek is up, you may have to stay in a cabin at the airport” she told us. And so we boarded the 30 seater twin prop aircraft not knowing whether we would reach Greg & our house sit until we arrived at Lockhart River.

In flight entertainment.

At Lockhart Greg was waiting for us. The country up there was relatively dry & the amount of rain which, at that time of the year, would normally have rendered the Chilli Creek impassable for a while , had been absorbed into the ground, with only a drive-able depth of water flowing over the short concreted causeway.

Passengers board our plane for it’s return flight after we have disembarked. The two local cops are searching our & other’s luggage for alcohol before it is wheeled through the gate to us.

All in all a departure & arrival to remember!

The opportunity to house sit at Portland Roads had come out of the blue. The contact came on a Tuesday via an online house sitting website. We replied in a state of excitement saying “ We are meeting with another couple on Thursday, with a view to sitting for them but would much prefer to sit for you. However if we make a commitment to this other couple we will keep it, so if we are to come up to Portland Roads, we will need to decide within the next 24 hours”. “We’ll call you in the morning” they wrote. They did, & the decision was made. We couldn’t believe our luck, & making a spur of the moment decision like that felt exciting. We were metaphorically pinching ourselves to check if we were dreaming! It’s not every day you get a chance to experience a part of Cape York when it is closed off to tourists (by virtue of the roads being impassable). Having our return flights paid for, the use of a late model 4wd & fuel paid felt like a bonus. We were relieved when the couple we had planned to meet with on the Thursday were understanding. We told them what had happened & they told us that although disappointed that they would have done the same if in our shoes. We think they still had plenty of time to find other house sitters.

You can make out the road from Portland Roads to Lockhart River except where it is in the rainforest. Around 45 minutes to an hour each way, but we always allowed longer in case of fallen trees or flooded creeks.

Portland Roads is an historic tiny township about 2/3rds of the way up the east coast of Cape York, approximately 800kms north of Cairns by plane & car, & a longer rougher journey by road (when they are open). It’s a 45 minute drive from the Lockhart River airport (built by the Americans during World War 2) on a road which remains mostly passable throughout the wet season, although deteriorates with every fall of rain which creates ever deepening washouts & gullies to be negotiated. The creeks which flood generally only cut the road for a few hours with water levels falling almost as quickly as they rise. Just as well as part of the deal was for me to take on Greg’s usual role of postal contractor, driving to the airport every Tuesday & Friday to collect the mail from the plane to take back to Portland Roads, distributing it to the few locals, who called to collect it. The township is a rarity on Cape York, a tiny pocket of freehold parcels of land. There are a few others on the Cape, but less than handful. covering in total less than 1% of the entire Cape. Mostly country on the Cape is divided between Aboriginal land, pastoral leases & mining leases. So the chances of owning property on the Cape is extremely limited. In our view those who do are exceptionally lucky. Properties, judging by the few we have been in, are comfortable, but far from fancy. It’s too far from any source of supply to build more than the basics.

One of several creeks to cross. This one had a bridge.

So 5 weeks in this tiny community of individuals (one has to be fairly individualistic to live such a remote life) & limited to driving between Portland Roads & Lockhart River Aboriginal Community, (& a couple of places we could access between the two). It doesn’t sound a lot when put like that ……… but we loved it.

It is an unusual place. At the end of a dirt road, through forested wilderness & over a mountain range, you drive past mangroves which come right to the very edge of what has become a sealed road as you enter the township. High tide covers the mangrove roots & laps at the bitumen which leads us into to this neat little seaside hamlet with mowed grass, & Coral Sea views. It looks like ‘civilisation’ transplanted’, but this is largely an illusion. It lacks most of ‘civilisation’s’ trimmings . No infrastructure save for the road & a small community hall , a public toilet & some bench seats for dry season tourists – No streetlights, pavements, or shop – isolated – used to being cut off & just the way that the handful of locals like it . It can get quite busy during the tourist season with cars coming & going, but for the locals the quiet wet season is the best time to be there. No surprise there! For some the tourists mean income as well as frustration. People bring their city expectations with them, & are fooled by the village like appearance, forgetting where they are & expecting services they are used to at home. For others the tourists mean little more than extra care being needed on the busier road.

Almost in Portland Roads ‘CBD’
Portland Roads central. Beach a few metres to the left, our residence a few metres to the right at the corner. Note the expertly mown grass! 🙂 Wallabies would sit & watch me manouvering the zero turn mower.

The people who live here are hardy souls, adept at ‘making do’, independent & private. Over the 5 weeks we were there however we gradually got to know folk, learning something of their relationships with each other, hearing stories of life on & off the sea. Above all we felt valued because we were making a small contribution in the form of my role both as the postie, & as ‘council worker’ mowing the grass in all of the public areas of the township. Inviting folk to have a cuppa with us, or just to hang around for a bit of a yak when they came to collect their mail resulted in both some great conversations & reciprocated invitations to their homes. This just would not have happened were it not for the ‘jobs’ which were part & parcel of the house sit. Judging by the mail received satellite internet & online shopping has made a huge difference to life here! The nearest phone signal is 1 bar of reception at the top of the hill near the rubbish tip, approx 5 kms out of town. Just enough to receive messages & make a call of you are lucky. Certainly not to use the internet. This is from a repeater tower in Lockhart River. Even in town there is only 3G.

‘Home’.
The small ‘town beach’ sits between two areas of mangroves. The ‘spit’ jutting out into the water is the remnant of the World war two jetty built to supply American warships.

As well as the people there were a few dogs around, mostly decendants of ‘community dogs’, either from Lockhart or other Cape communities. Community dogs are different to most we have met. All different of course, but with one common trait, they are far more independent, & far less needy for human affection. That is not to say that they won’t approach you in an interested & friendly manner. They will even accept a pat & a rub, but it is clearly on their terms, not yours. When they have had enough they just wander on. Mostly they have free rein of the place, returning home when it suits, sniffing through ’our’ garden when it suited. They did have owners but didn’t act like they were owned. One in particular stole our hearts. ‘Memphis’ like most of the Portland dogs, was fairly large, looked like a Rhodesian Ridgeback cross, but no doubt had a very ‘colourful’ heritage, & was known as the ‘swimming dog’. Most days he would take himself out into the bay, either swimming, or walking across the exposed reef at low tide, jumping & splashing his way through rock pools, or following rays out into deeper water. He constantly looked around which probably explains how he has survived out there in the water, given that there is a large croc which inhabits the bay (& which we only saw only once). The locals have given up worrying about Memphis, taking a fatalistic view that one day he may go for a swim & not come back, but the consensus is that if this happens he will have had an extraordinarily happy life. Watching him out there, as we often did from the vantage point of our veranda, we could tell how much he loved what he was doing. His joy was lovely to watch. His mate Gris often accompanied him around ’town’ but we never saw Gris in the water. Memphis has been the swimming dog for several years now, & we wish him many more.

Memphis the swimming dog doing what he loves.

Our accommodation was at Portland House, a quirky & interesting old house (which is available as rentable holiday accommodation during the tourist season) but we were looking after next door too. Greg & Sheree’s home part of which they operate as the ‘Out of the Blue Cafe’, for tourists, & which is renowned for it’s seafood platters. Greg explained that to get to the area meant a fairly long detour off the Peninsula Development Road (the main (dirt) road running north-south up the Cape) ,with only 3 tourist ‘attractions’ to tempt folk to make the journey. The Iron Range National Park – Rainforest with an abundance of birds & wildlife , a proportion of which live nowhere else, & many more which only live on parts of the Cape, but are harder to see in those other locations, the iconic Chilli Beach, & their cafe, somewhere to eat out where places to eat out across the Cape are a rarity.

Spotting birds along a track in the Iron Range NP
Cuppa the Postie about to head off to meet the mail plane
The one thing almost guaranteed to make it rain was to mow the ‘park’ area at the other end of town. I couldn’t have been wetter if I’d gone for a dip in the ocean.
But it really wasn’t a tough gig.

Portland House is built on multiple levels, backing into the steep rainforest, with bedrooms & a veranda ‘downstairs’, & the main living area comprising a covered deck, the living room & kitchen combined & a bedroom ‘upstairs’. In addition there are a couple more bedrooms & the shower room in separate buildings adjacent to an outdoor eating area complete with a large wood fired pizza oven. The living room/kitchen is ‘open’. Windows have storm shutters, but no glass, Double doors front & rear remained open too. Our first night there was a challenge! With lights on & cooking we were accosted by a great variety of flying bugs, some, like rhinocerous beetles, large & noisy. Most were bugs/moths & critters unknown to us. And there were bats swooping in & out of the living room, close enough to feel the moving air on our faces as they passed. We wondered what on earth we had let ourselves in for! Thankfully we learned quickly. Not cooking too late, & restricting ourselves to a single indoor light once it was dark, with a brighter ‘decoy’ light out on the deck made all the difference, & we had no repeat of the first night’s shenanigans. There were night time ‘bugs’ we enjoyed though. Years ago I recall buying glow in the dark stickers for our young son’s bedroom. Here we had the real deal – fireflies in the bedroom!

Built right into the rainforest!
Side steps had more use than the main front steps. Must have built up our leg muscles during our stay!

First floor bedrooms, one of which I used as the ‘Post Office’.
Living Room. Bedroom through white door at rear. Bathroom out the back door & up a couple of steps. Kitchen out of sight to the left.
Kitchen with critter-proof larder behind green door.
Shower room out the back.
On the deck, the hammock had daily use. Toilet is behind the camera – no going out in the rain for a visit.
And here is what the house is all about – the view!

On our first day Greg brought a seemingly ‘industrial’ supply of Mosquito coils up to us & suggested we burn 3 at a time strategically placed around the room, both first thing in the morning & at dusk. Throughout our time there we were asked many times how we were coping with the mozzies & sandflies (biting midgies) – moreso the latter. We did burn coils each day & we did get a few bites, but it seems like we got lucky with their being far fewer ‘bities’ around than normal. We used roll-on mozzie repellent on our skin, but not at the house, only when walking in the rainforest or when gardening, especially after a bit of rain. Our bedroom, leading off the living room, was bug, bitey, & critter proof thankfully, as well as air conditioned. This was reassuring as we were told of a python which visits the living room from time to time. We quite liked the idea of that, but not the possibility of any of it’s venomous mates taking up residence! As it was snakes were in short supply, we think perhaps a result of the influx of cane toads. Deadly morsels to snakes as well as other animals. We have still not seen any type of python in Queensland, although have heard tales of & seen photos of some very large examples. One photo taken at the art centre in Lockhart River showed a chap holding a huge one, it’s body far to thick to get hands around, & an estimate from locals of a weight close to 200kg! Stories we heard included pythons taking dogs, & one of a father having to literally cut one off his baby daughter! Gruesome! Nevertheless we have been disappointed to not yet see one ourselves. On a bush just outside the living room we did see a brown tree snake, fairly small, & only mildly venomous, but it presented no threat. This was early in our stay, & a good reminder to use a torch to check our surroundings when going to the loo at night. This became habit even though we saw no more, save for the small unknown wriggler MrsTea saw disappearing between the decking timbers as she sat on the long drop composting toilet one night.

As well as daily hammock time MrsTea found time for a long breakfast at her favourite breakfast spot most mornings.
Low tide. If you look closely you can see Memphis out there.
Storm coming in.
The storm brought out the Frigate Birds en masse, there were over 100 of them circling overhead.

Lockhart River has a single shop, a small supermarket servicing the population of around 500, plus meeting tourist demands in season, supplied by a weekly(ish) barge which brings the supplies in to a small concrete jetty at Quintell Beach, a few kilometres from town. We shopped twice a week, on mail run days, mainly just for fresh fruit & veg, having arranged our frozen meat/fish supplies before our arrival, & sent up most of our non perishable food requirements by parcel post. Living some distance from town we didn’t get to know many folk other than those who worked in the shop & at the airport. Again, as in previous locations, we enjoyed becoming recognised at the shop. Bob, Pete & Gareth at the airport were ‘regulars’ , helpful & always up for a chat on mail days. Gary, the head ranger at the National Park was someone we bumped into a few times. He gave us permission to go into non public areas to view nesting Eclectus Parrots. Paul, a large strapping Islander who came to Lockhart with his missionary parents & now a central figure in town was one of those sort of people you instantly know on first meeting that they are someone you wish you had a lifetime to know them. Paul exuded warmth & welcome & charisma. He has built & developed a small local car hire business used by fly in workers & tourists, & is an integral part of the town whom he & his family do all they can to support. I don’t know if he is religious himself, it was never mentioned, but he certainly gives a great deal, having fostered more than 30 children for example. He was always up for a chat at the airport, & we met him at a few other places too, including at Dave’s place, when he called in whilst on a fishing trip with his family, anchored his boat & came ashore to share a drink & give us some fresh fish.

Dave deserves a paragraph or two to himself. We had read of him before going up there & hoped we might get a chance to meet this eccentric ex multi millionaire turned Robinson Crusoe. Once a high flying businessman in Sydney he lost the family fortune & subsequently his wife & family in the 1990’s Global Financial Crisis. A tale of woe ensued with more losses which broke his spirit but he subsequently found his way to Restoration Island, a small deserted island just a short boatride offshore between Cape Weymouth & Chilli Beach. An island with a rainforest encrusted mountain & a white sand beaches surrounded by clear turquoise waters. He has lived there alone in a very rudimentary shelter, largely open to the elements, for the past 25 years or so & likes to tell how the simple life & Restoration Island has restored him. (The island was named in 1789 when Captain Bligh & his loyal crew members felt ‘restored’ after they landed on the island after a long trip from Tonga in their 18 foot boat, following a mutiny aboard HMS Bounty). Dave is full of tales & tall stories & has even had a book published about it all. Locals say that much in the book is more imagination than reality, but they help him out when needed. We met him when he called into the house with a Cape Weymouth resident (one of three) to collect mail. He invited us over to his island, an offer we of course were keen to accept. By arrangement we took ourselves to a small beach on private property a couple of days later where Dave collected us in his outboard powered aluminium dinghy (tinnie).

Restoration Island (not my photo).
Dave taking us to his island having picked us up from the small beach on Cape Weymouth in the background. Crystal clear water.
I asked him to pose in front of the old yacht he has ‘parked’ on the beach.

I read a review of his book which said :-

“The key to enjoying this book is possibly understanding what it’s actually about. I figured it was going to be a book that could really get you thinking about life choices, and what he went through to turn is back on regular life etc and although there’s a pinch of that in there, it’s mostly not about that at all. Instead it’s pretty much like sitting around a fire while a bloke who’s possibly had one too many tells you all his stories, often in no particular order. Wasn’t at all what I was expecting.”

I mention this as the person writing the review nailed precisely what it was like to sit with Dave for a day. He talks at a rate of knots, jumping from one idea to another, from one thought to another, covering a huge array of issues. I enjoyed the challenge of conversing rather than simply listening. It felt hard to get a word in edgeways, but I think I must have managed, because at one point he turned to MrsTea & asked “How do you get a word in edgeways with this bloke?” She laughed & told him he had met his match. He laughed. A good friend who was up this way a year ago didn’t get to meet him, but from his reading described Dave as a ‘media tart’. It was a good description, he is just that but in an affable & somewhat comedic manner. It is easy to both laugh at him & with him. His riches to rags Robinson Crusoe story is like a magnet to content hungry media from all around the world & he loves to play up to it. Nevertheless he has survived on the island for 25 years, living a life that so many dream of but a life most could not hack the reality of. Throw in financial intrigue, high court dramas, relationships with locals & more and the chances of clarity & reality are all but impossible, & yet despite this, as folk who simply take people as we find them, we have been more than happy to accept Dave’s invitation to return for a longer visit to the island later in the year. (and will combine this with a return visit to stay with Greg & Sheree at Portland Roads). Below is one of many links on the net to Dave’s book. Please don’t think my use of this particular link implies I receive any kickbacks from sales – I don’t .

A good deal of our time was spent both at Chilli Beach & in the Iron Range National Park bird & animal spotting. There is much we didn’t see & plenty that we did. We didn’t see any Cus Cus, a monkey like possum, nor any tree kangaroos. We did however see a great variety of birds not before seen & managed to photograph some of them despite the often challenging low light & obscuring undergrowth of the rainforest. My hat comes off to those photographers who can get great images of rainforest birds. Me I either just get lucky, or get a shot which is nothing special, but at least it’s a shot. Highlights were finding some Palm Cockatoos in the rainforest at Chilli Beach, learning the approximate location of their nest, so we could return, sit , wait (with a flask of tea) & be rewarded with further sightings. Eclectus Parrots, & Buff Breasted Paradise Kingfishers among others.

Spectacled Monarch was the first of many new birds we saw.
Chestnut Breasted Cuckoo
Eclectus Parrot. Female is Red & Blue. Male is bright green with an orange bill.We saw both, but the male only flying, not settled.
Yellow breasted Boatbill
Double eyed Fig Parrot – Australia’s smallest parrot.
And the largest, the imposing Palm Cockatoo. This was our first sighting after several outings to find some.
Having worked out the approximate area where a pair were nesting, finding them again became easier. Take a flask of tea , sit relax & wait & after a while they show up.
Olive backed Sunbird
We had several good sightings of this very impressive little bird with it’s fancy long white tail, but this was the best photo I managed to get. Buff Breasted Paradise Kingfisher.
Red Browed Finches
Wompoo Pigeon (aka Wompoo Fruit Dove).

Chilli Beach with it’s kilometres of white sand lined with palms on the edge of the rainforest, offshore granite boulders, ultra blue water & distant mountains, & Restoration island at one end is probably the nicest beach we have ever walked, & we’ve walked a few! Better still every time we went there we had the entire beach to ourselves (and the crabs & birds). Approx 15 minute drive to get there made it a regular haunt. The Iron Range rainforest was somewhere we had to pass through on our way to & from Lockhart so we stopped off there regularly to bird spot too.

Paradise, but even in paradise long pants & sleeves & some mozzie repellent made sense in the early morning. A swing a few metres in from Chilli Beach
Chilli Beach
Chilli Beach
Chilli Beach
Chilli Beach
Chilli Beach
Lots of crabs on the beach, but these with impressively red claws & highly textured carapace were found in one of the small streams just off the beach.

A lot of time was spent just lounging & weather watching across the water from our living room. Every day, without fail, the sea looked different. Grand cloud formations came & went as the monsoon trough approached & retreated. We had some very heavy bouts of rain, but nothing like a ‘proper’ wet season, where , so we are told, it can rain, heavily non stop for weeks at a time. Either climate change or our wet season jinx is at work again. It has been hot though, with daytime temps in the mid 30’s most days & dropping to mid 20’s at night. The high humidity, often reaching close to 100% has made it feel far hotter though. The moistness in the air has been constant, you can smell it & feel it. Open a pack of chips (crisps) & if left open they become limp & flacid within 30 minutes! Keeping salt in it’s container dry is all but impossible. Driving in the car with the air conditioner on often resulted in the windscreen misting up on the outside, requiring use of windscreen wipers! Getting up for a night visit to the loo, the transition from a cool bedroom to the living room was like walking into a room where someone had left the heater full on for hours. If I had glasses on they would fog up as soon as I opened the bedroom door. To date the camera gear has survived the humidity, but I have now ordered an airtight case to keep it in to prevent future mould & moisture problems.

Night Visitor
Night calling at the rubbish tip
Marbled Frog

Night times were noisy affairs, but we became accustomed to the sounds. Waves on the beach. Ciccadas – I often found myself in a half awake state trying to synchronise my breathing to the rising & falling waves of cicada noise. Frogs after rain seemed to party, but mostly on dry nights we could hear just a single frog, the sound always coming from the same location. Like a wheel spinning, with a loud squeak in one or two spots of each revolution. That frog had real stamina, managing to keep it up for hours at a time. There were times I could have willingly strangled the damn thing, but I missed it when it was quiet! And then there were the generators. All inside concrete block enclosures & well muffled, one to each residence, but each with it’s own individual diesel note. We could tell them apart. Ours would run for around 3 hours at night, & occasionally during the day too if it had been particularly cloudy. It used around 5 litres of fuel per day on average, in addition to the roof full of solar panels, but the system was running multiple freezers & ceiling fans 24/7 , plus our use of the air conditioner in the bedroom.

One of many bugs. This one is a variety of ‘Longhorn Beetle’.
A large female Golden Orb weaving Spider. It’s body was the size of my thumb. Also missing a leg. Under the house.

To sum up our time at Portland Roads, it was yet another special place we feel very lucky to have experienced as we did. I would love to write more about the ‘Port’ characters & the many interchanges we had with them, it would make good reading, but feel that to do so any more than I have would constitute an abuse of trust . Call it respect.
In very small communities where everyone knows each others business & all talk about each other it can be hard to recall the source of one’s knowledge.

The 5 weeks passed far too quickly. The longer flight returning to Cairns took us via Arukun & Kowanyama, both isolated aboriginal communities on the cape’s lower west coast, before flying south east to Cairns. Our stops at the two communities allowed us sight of no more than the airfield, but the country we flew over, along the Gulf of Carpentaria coast was magnificent. So many waterways, so much green. We are very much looking forward to getting back up to that country in our car (& Tvan) later in the year after the roads in re-open.

Near Kowanyama
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