Our next port of call was the small sugar town of Marian in the Pioneer Valley, twenty five kilometres to the west of the city of Mackay (usually pronounced Mack-eye). Our reason for choosing this somewhat obscure town was that it made a good base for visiting:
The caravan park we stayed in was, let's be kind and say, adequate. Everything had a run-down appearance and hadn't seen a lick of paint this century. For much of the time, ours was the only touring 'van in the park, the rest were well past their use-by dates, never to roam the highways and byways again. The site rent was cheap, however, and it served it's purpose for a few days.
Mackay is a busy port city which claims to be the sugar and coal exporting capital of Australia. We drove around a bit, filled up with discount fuel from Woolies, ate lunch at Subway, then left Mackay to get on with its business.
Cape Hillsborough was absolutely beautiful, so much so that we decided to take the caravan there and spend at least a week, so I won't say more about it now.
Eungella National Park was inland, in the mountains. The drive took us up the wide Pioneer Valley between sweeping paddocks of sugar cane which was being harvested. The cane was transported to the mill in Marian by narrow-gauge cane trains, the tracks of which crisscrossed the road at frequent intervals. Where the tall cane had been cut, mountains could be seen on both sides of the valley. More mountains were visible ahead, in which lay our destination. We passed through a series of hamlets, some of which had very English sounding names. 'Finch Hatton' could have come straight out of an Agatha Christie mystery and 'Netherdale' sounded very Yorkshire.
On reaching the end of the valley the road zigzagged steeply up the mountainside. As we snaked around hairpin bends we theorised whether it would be possible to tow the caravan up there. We decided that we could if we really had to. When the road finally levelled out we found ourselves in the little village of Eungella with a spectacular view back along the Pioneer Valley.
Just through the village we found a driveway disappearing up a hill behind some trees. A sign near the road proclaimed it to be the Hideaway Café so we drove in. It was like entering a fairyland - the large garden had been landscaped and filled with cut-outs of birds and other objects, each one decorated with a covering of coloured glass pebbles and each pebble had been individually glued in place. Thousands had been used and it must have taken a great deal of both time and patience. But a picture speaks a thousand words.
The café's proud, and rather eccentric, owner was a lady of German extraction called Susanne. The inside of the café was another surprise and it complemented the garden. Susanne was clearly very clever with her hands and had made jewellery, ornaments, hats, lamp shades and wood-carved furniture, all of which were for sale. Even the view through the café's window was special.
Café was situated in open,
mountainous country with a lovely outlook.
One of the reasons that we had driven up to Eungella was that there were reportedly platypuses in a creek not very far away. Throughout our travels we have wanted to see these unusual creatures but despite spending long periods on riverbanks with camera at the ready, nary a sign did we see. Platypuses are shy, mainly nocturnal creatures which tend to live in deep and sometimes murky sections of river. They are air-breathing so need to surface periodically but, having taken a breath, they tend not to pose for the camera.
The plural of platypus is platypuses, though platypi is also acceptable. These critters belong to a unique group of animals called 'monotremes' and are a sort of mixture of bird, reptile and mammal. The only other Australian monotreme is the achidna (an animal resembling a hedgehog). When the early explorers killed a platypus and sent its body back to England, scientists were convinced they were the butt of a practical joke. They initially thought someone had sewn together several different species.
Platypuses have beaks and no external ears, but are not birds. They lay eggs, yet suckle their young on milk. They are warm blooded, covered in hair and have webbed feet. Their genital, urinary and digestive organs use a common orifice.
We arrived at Broken River at about four o'clock in the afternoon and learned from an information kiosk where on the river banks we should wait. It still being two hours to sunset, we walked down the creek to a large pool. Two other couples were there hoping to see a platypus but soon left. We waited, keeping very quiet, for several minutes and were rewarded by seeing a platypus surface briefly, far out in the middle of the pool. We continued to wait and saw it again, in about the same place. The photos I took were rubbish, I was too hurried and the platypus was too far away. We were waiting quietly again, hoping for a closer sighting, when a loud voice boomed out behind us,
Hey there, had any luck?.
He had a large beer belly, very thin legs and a shower wouldn't have hurt him either. He and his wife settled down to wait a short distance away but the platypus didn't appear again so Pam and I wandered back towards the bridge under the road.
A viewing deck with a safety rail had been constructed under the bridge and there were several people already there. We hadn't waited long when a platypus surfaced, but again it was only briefly and too far away. Over the next hour, however, we saw many platypuses and turtles surface, some quite close. I took about fifty photographs but only four were recognisable as platypuses. Mostly I got pictures of a splash as the little creature dived - they are only 10" to 12" long, tip of beak to tip of tail.
Ladies and Gentlemen - our first recognisable picture of a platypus.
As dusk approached people lined the railing under the bridge and more were leaning over the parapet above. Most had cameras and some were using a flash - not a good idea in the circumstances.
Unfortunately some thoroughly selfish moron on an unsilenced trail bike started riding back and forth over the bridge. There always has to be one, doesn't there? So Pam and I, having at long last seen a platypus, departed. We had earlier found this cosy little pub where they made the most yummy pies and we could feel it calling. It was in a village called Pinnacle on the way back to the caravan so we dropped in there for supper. And so ended another perfect day.
As mentioned previously, Cape Hillsborough is a place of exceptional natural beauty. As a national park it is immune from the developers who are so intent on ruining every place of aesthetic value in order to line their own pockets. The caravan park was only separated from the beach by a line of trees, yet from the beach it was completely hidden. On this same beach, turtles would soon begin coming ashore to lay their eggs.
We saw some surprisingly tame kangaroos and wallabies grazing around the laundry area where Pam was ironing clothes. (I really don't know why she bothers - they were crumpled already.)
I was sitting on a bench outside the laundry when a little kangaroo hopped right up to me, stood up on his back legs and began to groom himself. He was so close that his paw brushed my leg - he was completely without fear. He then hopped into the laundry passing between Pam and the ironing board. The park rules strictly forbid the feeding of 'roos and wallabies for the animals own protection; people tend to give them bread which they can't digest.
I later discovered the reason that the kangaroos were so tame. Each animal, while still a little 'joey', had been rescued from the pouch of its dead mother after she had been killed on the road. They had been taken to an animal rescue organisation and hand reared. When they were old enough they were brought to the Cape Hillsborough Nature Resort and released. There they remained, quite happily living amongst humans. They were not fenced in and were free to move on whenever they wished.
While at Cape Hillsborough I finally learned to tell the difference between a 'roo and a wallaby - at least the ones at Hillsborough. The wallabies are generally smaller than kangaroos but that doesn't really help - young kangaroos are small too. The wallabies at Hillsborough had more of a brown colouring than the 'roos which were grey. The wallabies' ears were smaller and had dark fur around the edge. They also had a dark smudge between their eyes and nose.
Hey, Ma, who's the old bloke with
Show a little respect, Joey. Eat your supper.
Another occupant of the park was the Australian Brush-turkey, of which there were many. We'd often be startled by a sudden rustling in the undergrowth and there would be one of these birds, scratching away at the dead leaves and loose earth in search of seeds or grubs.
Brush-turkeys tend to pair for life. They nest on the ground, building a large mound of leaf litter and covering it with sand and earth. They then hollow the centre so the nest resembles a shallow volcano. The female lays her eggs in the hollow and covers them over. They are kept warm by the sun above and the decaying leaf litter underneath so the parents have little incubating to do. Even better, when the chicks hatch they are fully independent - they dig themselves out of the mound and go and find their own food. They are able to fly within hours of hatching.
If only kids were more like Brush-turkeys!
This Australian Brush-turkey thinks he's the cat's whiskers with his bright yellow neckerchief. His tail feathers are very ragged, though.
At night, in several parks, we've heard the spine-chilling wail of what are commonly called Stone Curlews. In fact, these birds are totally unrelated to the curlew family of birds. Their correct name is rather unattractive; they are called Bush Thick-knees.
At Cape Hillsborough we were able to see a family of Thick-knees out for an evening stroll. They can be very aggressive if they think their young are threatened but these, though very cautious, were used to humans. Their first line of defence, when approached, is to freeze and rely on their plumage to provide camouflage. Failing that they are very fast on their long legs. The chicks we saw had not yet developed flight feathers so in a dire situation the parents would take off and dive on the attacker.
What we loved about the Cape Hillsborough Nature Resort was its seclusion. It's well off the beaten track but right on the beach, and though small, has a new swimming pool, a bar and a restaurant. In the bar/restaurant area there is a book exchange cabinet where guests are invited to donate a book they have read and select another that interests them. The book exchange is free and unsupervised; we used it several times. The park is managed by a family - four generations of them if you count old Gran and the children. They and their staff were all very pleasant and helpful. The only sound at night was of the waves breaking onto the beach and the occasional cries of the Thick-knees. If Hillsborough did have a down side, it was the lack of mobile phone coverage. No - disregard that. If the lack of phone coverage was occasionally inconvenient, the absence of mobile phone ringing tones and people bellowing into them was an absolute godsend.
In order to access the internet we had to drive a few kilometres back down the road to find a spot where we could receive a sufficiently strong mobile phone signal. The road wended through bush which gradually gave way to farmland with the ubiquitous sugar cane much in evidence. Just by chance we first detected an adequate phone signal close to a roadside café. How much more pleasant to sit at a table and sip coffee while using the computer than to be cramped in a hot car on the roadside?
It transpired that the Old Station Tea House and Craft Gallery, for that is what it was called, really had been a railway station for a hundred years. It had come from the town of Marian where we had last stayed.
The building had been lifted holus-bolus and placed on a low loader to be transported to its present site. It still had the ticket window with the word 'TICKETS' written above it. Inside we found Michele Shea, the very friendly café proprietor who generously offered us a power point to plug in our lap-top and even the use of her modem. However, we are fully self-contained in that respect and needed neither.
Michele told us all about the station building and how she and her husband, Dwayne, came to purchase and transport it. All had gone well until the building inspector told them that current regulations required the building to be cyclone-proofed which involved removing and strengthening the roof. The cost of that operation effectively doubled the purchase price of the building!
The Old Station Tea House and Craft Gallery is situated in large, picturesque grounds which Michele and Dwayne are working hard to improve. Not that the grounds need improvement, Pam and I found the environment as perfect as the coffee.
That brings us to the conclusion of yet another page in our seemingly never-ending journey around Australia. We have still hardly ventured into the two most populous states - New South Wales and Victoria. The island state of Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory remain untouched, as does the north of our own state of Western Australia. It's beginning to look like we're just going to have to live for ever! See you on Page 34.
Footnote: This re-working of Page 33 was completed on 17 April 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level 3.