Steve, the caretaker at Laura dance festival site was a single man, an Englishman in his mid 70’s, quite a character who qualifies well for the term ‘eccentric gentleman’ with the emphasis on ‘gentle’. We hit it off after I had recognised a place he had worked at in the UK decades ago – a ‘proving ground’ for English manufactured vehicles. Same place that another old(er) friend had worked at 10 years before Steve. A place of employment which appears to have had legendary approval of it’s employees, held in high esteem much like those who trained and worked for PMG in Australia. A place which encouraged the best from all & allowed a higher than usual degree of individual autonomy. Perhaps I am adding 2 +2 & making 5, but although their lives are very different our old friend & Steve seemed remarkably similar in many ways. Steve probably had the edge in the talking stakes though! For a chap who has lived a semi hermit-like lifestyle for many years, with none of the modern means of communication (no TV, radio, phone, computer etc, only contactable face to face) he always had a great deal to say… to the point of being ‘over inclusive’. Those who know me well are probably already thinking that here was a match made in heaven. However MrsTea, always polite, found the wide ranging & lengthy conversations tiring, possibly tedious, until she realised that dropping in & out of the talkfests once Steve & I had got going was not perceived as rude. She would ask later “What did you talk about?” I could only tell her that I didn’t know because the conversations were always so broad & tangenital, without any more purpose other than to provide ‘entertainment’ to us both, something they succeeded in doing rather well.
On leaving we both offered Steve hugs which were accepted with moist eyes. We had had plenty of time to ourselves ‘in between’ talks, but his lonely stoicism had, we think, been shaken a little. We will seek him out when we head south again.
From Laura we headed North, avoiding the the PDR, instead driving in to Rinyirru (Lakefield NP). The main road – Lakefield Road (dirt) stretches around 120kms northward, rejoining the PDR at Musgrave Station. We really had little idea of what to expect from the National Park (intentionally – sometimes we plan, sometimes not – both have their pro’s & cons, but this time we chose to be surprised). We knew that the park was a longer way to reach Musgrave Station & was a place which appeared to be bypassed or rushed through over a couple of nights, by many on their ‘pilgrimage’ up to the “Tip’ (of Cape York). We gave ourselves a week but found it not to be long enough, but provided a good ‘aperitif’ for a second visit on the southerly bound leg of our Cape exploration.
There are camp sites along the length of Lakefield Road, & as expected these were the busiest. We didn’t stay at any of these, instead choosing to get off the often corrugated dirt & onto the myriad of smoother (in the main) much smaller & intimate two-wheel tracks. Here we found the heart of what Rinyirru is all about. The park is divided into eastern & western sectors by the Normanby River with only one place to cross (Kalpower Crossing) we believe. Our week was spent in the western sector, with intent to explore the eastern sector when we follow the coast back down to Cooktown at a later date.
As we drove around the park, the experience was reminiscent of our drive to Walcott Inlet along the Munja Track from Mt Elizabeth Station in the Kimberley. The tracks took us through a mix of grassy savannah, with the height of the grass brushing our car windows on the sides of the tracks, open grassy woodlands, wide open plains & frequent waterholes & lagoons. Evidence everywhere told us that huge areas of the park go under water every wet season when the Normanby & other rivers flood far & wide. As the dry season progresses the floods contract leaving the lilly covered lagoons (remnant water in large depressions) & waterholes (deeper sections of river which retain sufficient water to last through the dry season when the rivers cease to flow). As with other northern rivers the amount of water which thunders through this country is awe-inspiring. Something which has to be seen to be believed! It was self evident why many parts of the park generally do not open until well into the dry tourist season. River crossings which we found dry would be rocky & very unpredictable with even a fairly shallow flow, others with water still flowing would have washed us away just weeks earlier. Black soils would have which could see a car bogged for weeks had dried out in the hot winter sun. This is croc country, & the widely spreading waters of the Wet provide passage for the crocs to locations sometimes far from the rivers. Any body of water, no matter how small, is worthy of respect & caution. If you cannot see the bottom it is always wise to assume there is a croc there , who knows you are there too! An 8 metre ‘puddle’ can hide a 7 metre croc! It is said that it is the crocs you don’t see which are the most dangerous. Well, we didn’t see many, a few, but we suspect that we were seen by many more!
As I made reference to in our last post, we are not fans of the Queensland Wildlife & Parks Service (QWPS) requirements for intending campers to book ahead. Fine for those with fixed holiday itineraries but nonsensical for the many travellers like us. As expected when we checked the online booking system (on a difficult to navigate website, on an outdoor screen at a Ranger Station with no rangers around on the Sunday morning) we eventually (I did say the web site was difficult to navigate – clunky & non-intuitive is how I would describe it) found that every camp site was booked out for the entire period we would be in the park. Bear in mind that most of the campsites are individual sites, usually with a description of how many vehicles they can accommodate at one time. Some only suitable for a single vehicle, some for up to six (for family groups etc). Bear in mind also, that we had both read about, & been told by a ranger of ‘Ghost Bookings’, made by folk who happily make block bookings for a week or longer in order to secure a particular site for the day they get there. We think that whilst understandable for those for whom this suits that it is an unfair & unreasonable arrangement for folk who travel like us. It seems (to us) that a far more ‘just’ system would be to reserve some campsites for those who like to book ahead, AND to reserve some campsites for folk who turn up on a ‘first come/first served honesty box system as was done in the past. The problem of course, is that the pre-booking system maximises the QWPS ‘bean-counter’s’ returns & avoids those who abuse honesty boxes. In the circumstances as they are currently we chose to take a punt on turning up at ‘booked’ sites. Our strategy was to arrive late afternoon prepared to share if those who had booked were accepting of this (we found that many sites were actually able to accommodate more than parks info suggested, without ‘crowding out’ others) or to move on if need be. We also checked out quite a few other sites as we drove around, keen to find sites which were ‘solar friendly’, or better still ‘solar friendly’ but with shade. The latter allowing us to place the Tvan in the shade, & the car (with it’s rooftop panels) out in the sun. Over 7 nights we only shared once with folk who had pre-booked, they arrived after us, asked if we had booked the site, & when told ‘No’, said they were happy for us to stay. At one other site we shared with another couple doing the same as us. Two sites we passed by seeing they were occupied. All the other sites we checked and/or stayed at were vacant. That the ‘ghost bookers’ had paid for our stays was something we appreciated & felt not a pang of guilt about. Away from the main Lakefield Road our estimation was that more than 90% of the sites which had been pre-booked were unused. Crazy!
We stayed at 4 different sites, Mick Fienn Waterhole, Orange Plain Waterhole Camp 1, Brown Creek & Five Mile Creek. All were great, but the last was our favourite. A largish (4m+) ‘Saltie’ was spotted at Brown Creek, & a smaller one (2m) at five Mile Creek. Other sites we checked out were Catfish Waterhole, White Lily Lagoon & Red Lily Lagoon (all day use only) plus Hanush’s Waterhole, Melaleuca Waterhole, Orange Plain Waterhole camps 2, 3 & 4, Top Whiphandle Waterhole, Bottom Whiphandle Waterhole camps 1 & 2, Bizant River, Saltwater Crossing camps 1, 2 3, & 4, & Annie River. We feel that we could easily spend a few weeks in the western side of the park alone, & that using the various camp sites as ‘destinations’ – (either to just visit, for lunch stops or to stay) is a good way to do it (for nature lovers at least).
I am sitting under the shady boughs of an ‘old friend’ writing this. We are now back on Balurga Station, midway between the PDR & the west coast community of Pormpuraaw, on the banks of the large ‘Blazeaway’ waterhole in the Coleman River. Turn left after 110kms, then 30kms to the homestead & another 25kms of 4wd track to where we are camped. We spent a couple of weeks here at around this time last year. A lovely spot, not dissimilar to the National Park we left almost a week ago, but with even more birdlife & a few crocs too. The anthills (termite mounds) seem to be in greater abundance here. It is a cattle station owned & run by Marriette, sister of Ineke who owns the property that was home in Mutchilba since the pandemic hit until we recently moved on to explore the Cape. The water levels are higher this year, fish & croc activity more frequently noticed, trees that were in blossom at this time last yearare not this year, but others are. As a result the variety of honeyeaters is lower, but there are still plenty of birds around, many ‘old friends’ & pleasingly a few new ones to tick off on our bird ‘app’. Marriette had commented that the parrots were scarce this year, so we thought it would be interesting to make a list of all the birds we identified for her. In the first 3 days we observed 43 species. There are other’s calls we’re unfamiliar with. Each time we ticked off an ‘old friend’ it has been gratifying to know they are still here, but adding birds not previously seen here is especially so. The real highlights have been twofold. First the new (to us) birds – Masked Finches & several sightings of a Fan-tailed Cuckoo. Pics of the finches, but only distant blurred shots (wrong lens at the time) of the cuckoo. The other highlight (sorry if you are not a bird nerd) was observing a Great bowerbird giving us an extensive rendition of a whole range of other birds that he mimicked! Everything from the Large-billed Gerygone’s repetitive notes to the piercing whistle of the Whistling Kite. Watching Mr BB, just feet away going through his routine, a wild bird very obviously ‘performing’ unsolicited for us was quite astonishing. Equal to any footage I have seen of ‘Mimic Royalty’ the Superb Lyrebird, & all at the same volume as those he was mimicking!
Billy tea! This cannot pass without mention. We are not frequent camp fire afficionados, but when camped somewhere like this for a while, it’s good to utilise the camp fire & save on the use of gas. (Our first of two 3.7kg gas cylinders ran out after 7 weeks, on our first night here – not sure if/where we can get refills on the Cape). With a camp fire kept going 24/7 comes Billy tea. Maybe it’s the pommie part of me coming out, but after a mug or two of tea, boiled on the fire with the tea in it, & then daily topped up with more tea & water & chucked back on the fire when needed you get a good strong brew which makes the average ‘out of the kettle & onto the teabag in the cup cuppa’ seem well less than average. Having a campfire regularly just to get a good cuppa is not convenient or practical, but the past few days have been a great reminder of one of the joys of camping ‘proper-like’!
Our plan to get to Lockhart River for the Pfizer vaccination dates has cut short our time here, but we will hopefully return before we finally leave the Cape. Bush camping in absolute peace & beauty like this , with the added bonus of the hot water shower (river water via donkey boiler & 12v pump powered from our vehicle) are hard to go past! We are however feeling a tad uncertain about our plans. When we turned off the PDR toward Pormpuraaw we passed a sign saying something along the lines ‘Access to Pormpuraaw to residents only’, & without the means of accessing news/internet etc here, we are uncertain whether the spreading concern about the Covid ‘Delta variant’ may be resulting in other communities again closing themselves off protectively, possibly already having done so. (When you read this you may already be better informed than us). If Lockhart is closed we are uncertain about what our options may be for fuel, food & vaccinations. At the moment our fingers are crossed, but we’ll just have to go with whatever the flow is. If we are blocked from our Cape plans for a second year running it’ll be tough, but still nowhere near as tough as some have been doing it. Today is Wed, 4th August. We are waiting for a replacement changeover relay on tomorrow’s mail plane (lands at the next door station). The one in our car which switches battery charging input from the alternator to solar when the ignition is turned off has become unreliable. We think it likely that all the corrugations have resulted in burned out contacts.
List of birds observed & identified at Balurga.
Nankeen Night heron
Black – backed Butcherbird
White bellied Cuckoo- shrike
Double- barred finch
White bellied sea eagle
Black-necked Stork (Jabiru)
Little Pied Cormorant
Straw -necked Ibis
Black- Fronted Dotterel
Masked Finch (Race ‘Leucotis’)
Red-tailed Black Cockatoo
Australian White Ibis
Rainbow Bee Eater
Late additions – this post is being uploaded from Coen, where we arrived this morning & got our first phone/internet signal for a while. Along with the myriad of emails, messages, Facebook alerts etc we have also found out that Lockhart River is open & that we should get our vaccinations there in the coming week. Also we’ve been asked to return to house sit at Cape Weymouth (Chilli Beach) again for the last week of August, so will stay a bit longer than planned in that particular piece of heaven! 🙂 We have also been asked to care-take Balurga Station for the Wet Season – quite an exciting possibility – it is very remote & can be cut off from all road access for months when the Coleman River floods. As yet we have not determined whether we will be accepting the offer we received to ‘sit’ up in Seisia, but very nice to have a ‘plan B’ for the wet season, both up on the Cape & hopefully well clear of the covid ravaged south.