After a couple of days in Rockhampton our adventure continued and we were soon back on the Bruce Highway with our next overnight stop, Waverley Creek Rest Area, just south of the township of St Lawrence.
Waverley Creek is a very busy free camp just off the highway and although prone to a little road train noise throughout the night it was a nice stop to break this stretch of long open road.
Like many road side stops on this highway, the maximum stay is 20 hours and many caravanners make the most of this time to take a break.
It had everything any camper would want – clean toilets, wood fired barbeques, tap water for washing up, picnic tables (some sheltered), a public telephone box, plenty of company (welcome to our blog Carol and Cliff from Lilydale in Victoria)… and it was large enough for us to pitch our rooftop tent in the sealed parking area to sit back and watch as the many caravanners pulled in – and then out when there wasn’t any space left for them to park their huge vans.
As our journey continued next morning we bypassed the turnoff to the tiny town of St Lawrence.
We had visited this little village briefly on our last trip to have a quick shower at the Recreation Reserve as we passed from one free camp to the next!
St Lawrence straggles around a railway line and is located halfway between Rockhampton and Mackay. It was originally established as a port to ship cattle but today most of the population are council workers, railway workers and just a few professional fishermen and local business people.
There is nothing more than a pub, a little butcher shop, a couple of general stores, a railway station, a bowls club and a council office, which is the only elegant building in town and seemed quite out-of-place in this otherwise inconsequential little town.
Further down the road it was lovely to catch up and have coffee with our friends from Beaudesert as they made their way home from Cape York – welcome to our blog Dee and Aaron.
The day was beginning to look quite ominous as we moved on, and soon we came to the tiny township of Carmila, another cane growing community at the foot of the Connors Range.
Carmila Beach is approximately 6-kilometres east of the small township of Carmila so we decided to poke our noses in just for a look.
After driving about 1 kilometre along a dirt track then another 300 metres along a really sandy narrow track we came to some great camp sites set in amongst the bush line just behind the beach.
It was a pretty spot where the water came right up to the edge of the bush. When the tide goes out here it goes out a long, long way and when it comes in, it comes in very, very quickly!
As the day was still young we headed on with Sarina, another sugar town, next on the map.
Also at the foot of Connors Range, Sarina has beautiful beaches stretching for kilometres north and south and lots of country charm… and of course is another ‘Aussie Big Thing’ town with ‘Buffy’, a large cane toad statue sitting proudly in the middle of the town right in-between the north and south-bound lanes of the Bruce Highway.
Continuing along the highway and still engulfed with fields of sugar cane, we came to Mackay.
As well as sugar cane, Mackay is also widely recognised as the gateway to the Bowen Basin coal mining reserves of Central Queensland.
The Bowen Basin is the single largest coal reserve in Australia with 34 operational coal mines extracting more than 100 million tonnes annually and an influential industry for the region and the port of Mackay.
But sugar cane production is the ‘history’ for this region.
Mackay is the sugar capital of Australia and it was no surprise that the harbour was home to one of the largest bulk-sugar loading terminals in the world.
Mackay got its name from Scottish born John Mackay, who along with a party of 9 others including an Aboriginal tracker by the name of Duke, explored the region in 1860 reaching the Pioneer Valley.
This relaxed tropical city on the banks of the Pioneer River is surrounded by a varied mix of art, architecture and nature and has a fabulous marina where we could ride our bikes along the foreshore.
Called the ‘Bluewater Trail’, this trail is a shared path for bicycle and pedestrians and as well as being lined with cafes and restaurants and a large shopping mall it also links the Botanical Gardens, Town Beach and Bluewater Lagoon, a beautiful 3-tiered swimming haven.
Continuing on, the road passed through spectacular country with mountains covered in tropical forests and valleys of sugar cane fields and although harvesting was almost over, a few harvesters were still out cutting the last paddocks for the year.
There was never a dull moment on this highway and we were again watching the road closely as more trivia signs with quiz questions to keep drivers awake, soon popped up again… this time my favourite – ‘How long to go dad?’ or ‘how long to go mum?’ followed by the answer further down the road… ‘Still a long way to go kids’!
We passed the caravan park on the banks of the O’Connell River where we had stayed last trip. The beautiful palm trees swaying over a crystal-clear swimming pool presented quite an alluring sign… but it wasn’t exactly what we expected when we pulled in late one night – just lots of permanent residents and rundown buildings!
The sugar town of Proserpine was just a few kilometres down the highway and as we drove down the main street it was pleasing to see businesses had survived and been rebuilt after being hit hard by Tropical Cyclone Debbie in early 2017.
Tarpaulins, cyclone fencing and plywood had covered shopfronts and the local hotel was all boarded up and closed when we came through last time.
Even though this part of Australia is used to cyclones this category 4 cyclones impact was definitely felt when she slowly hit the coastline carrying wind speeds of up to 260-kilometres per hour.
For hours Debbie’s destructive force refused to move on, hovering over places like Proserpine and Airlie Beach, before finally moving slowly south and unleashing her anger on the flood-ravaged communities of northern NSW.
The wake of the cyclone not only left many people without power, it also damaged lots of buildings and vegetation.
Many roads were closed due to fallen power lines, trees and flash flooding and the Shute Harbour Marina at Airlie Beach that serves as a gateway to the Whitsunday Islands was completely smashed, as was the popular tourist destinations of Hayman Island, Daydream Island and Hamilton Island. Even today people area still suffering the effects of this cyclone.
Just out of Proserpine we passed the turnoff to Airlie Beach. Our friends Sandii and Neil live at Cannondale just out of the touristy hub, but as they were on the road travelling we continued on.
Airlie Beach is a very popular tourist and backpacker destination with a number of shops, bars and restaurants popular with holiday makers and locals alike.
Situated in the heart of the Whitsunday Coast this picturesque town sits on a tropical peninsula at Shute Harbour and is also the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and Whitsunday Islands.
A further 40-kilometres north of Airlie Beach is Hydeaway Bay, and as the name suggests a nice little hideaway off the beaten track where people escape the crowds and the backpacking scene.
There are not many houses here and only a few cafes and not far away is its sister town, the famous ‘Dingo Beach’… both situated on Edgecumbe Bay on Cape Gloucester that boast miles of sandy beaches and crystal clear waters.
Bowen, further up the road, is another gem on the map and our first sight as we neared this little town was the ‘Big Mango’ at the Visitor Information Centre on the highway.
Bowen appeared a sleepy and forgotten town as we drove in and it was hard to believe it was actually once in contention for the title of state capital.
Our first impression from the highway was that of not a charming town as monstrous saltworks came into view, but beyond saltworks we soon saw the town’s slightly tumbledown and faded elegance… and a coastline of beautiful beaches.
Originally named Port Denison, it was later called Bowen after Queensland’s first Governor, and the towns only claim to fame is that it doubled as the ‘1930s Darwin’ for the Baz Luhrmann film, ‘Australia’ when the 2008 movie was filmed around the town.
Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackson starred in the film and hundreds of local people appeared as add-ins. All that remains is a big vacant block of land opposite the waterfront where ‘the entire set’ had been located’!
We couldn’t leave Bowen without checking out the sights again.
The history of Bowen from the earliest settlers through to present day are depicted on 25 wonderful murals painted on buildings around the town that really are a must see!
The lookouts are also worth a visit offering magnificent views from Flagstaff Hill and stretching over Bowen, Edgecombe Bay, Gloucester Passage and Gloucester Island.
Captain Cook named Cape Gloucester when he sailed past in 1770 not realising it was an island. Also, just as stunning are the views from Grays Bay Lookout and the Reservoir Hill Lookout.
Elliot River Rest Area at Guthalungra was our next comfort stop for the night.
We had stopped at Home Hill (30-kilometres further on) last trip, a rest area right in the centre of the town of Home Hill, which is usually packed with caravans and campers parked on both sides of Railway Avenue!
This stop is provided as a service to travellers by the local community with excellent showers and loos, but we opted for the very small Elliot River Rest Area this trip, another camp like all the road stops along this highway – grab a spot if you can!
We just managed to squeeze in, as did our new friends Carol and Cliff… right behind us actually – and it was here that Cliff had his little mishap!
In haste, running as only Cliff (87) can do, he tripped over Carol’s potted lettuces and went head over heals, bumped his head on the concrete curb and split his eye open… this little injury requiring a little bit of first aide, a few butterfly clips and a promise he would have it seen to the next day.
It shook him up quite a bit, but he was back to his cheerful self the following morning and heading off to Ayr for a little medical attention much to our relief.
Following closely behind, we dropped in to Home Hill for a quick shower at the travellers rest then continued north.
Just a few kilometres down the road we came to Ayr.
Ayr is a town near the delta of the Burdekin River and was named after the Scottish town of Ayr by the early settlers.
As with most of the coast up here, due to the underground aquifers and a dam to irrigate crops when the rains don’t come, sugar cane is a dominant feature of the landscape. In fact, the area produces the most sugar cane per square kilometre in Australia.
We had visited Ayr on a previous trip and stayed at the local caravan park. We were there for 2 nights, and both nights ‘Burdekin snow’ fell leaving our car and tent covered in ash… ash that came from the burning of the sugar cane prior to harvesting.
Further north, they harvest the whole cane and use the trash (leaves etc) to generate electricity, but here they burn the trash and as a result every night, it snows!
This region, the Burdekin Region (hence Burdekin snow), is the only region across Australia to still burn sugarcane before harvest and this is because of an abundance of water in the region, which makes the cane too leafy to cut.
Timing is the crucial element for these burns and we just happen to be in the right place at the right time to witness this process when one of the local workers offered to take us out to the cane fields to watch a burn.
The cane farmers wait until dusk when the temperatures and winds have dropped and then it is a mad dash for everyone who works in the cane fields (and for us), to drive a few kilometres out of town.
We watched in awe as they went about lighting the cane, back burning and watering down the cane then just as quickly the flames rose metres high into the sky… and ash was again blown across the town! These cane fires are pretty fierce and we could feel the heat from down the road where we were instructed to stand. It was such an amazing process to watch.
Considered the unofficial capital of North Queensland, Townsville was our next port of call.
Only in February of this year this area battled a flood crisis when a slow-moving tropical monsoon trough, dragging moist air down from the equator, refused to budge and created an unprecedented flooding crisis that stretched for many hundreds of kilometres south, north and west of the city.
The rain continued for many days with Townsville battling a flood disaster resulting in hundreds of the residents being evacuated, thousands of homes inundated by rising floodwaters and many stock lost as far west as Cloncurry and the surrounding districts.
Australia’s tropical north is use to the annual wet season, but even at this time of year this type of rainfall was extreme!
Only a few months on there was nothing of the crisis to be seen in the city, no doubt like Airlie Beach when we passed through last visit they are very good at putting up a facade for the tourists.
Townsville’s life began when Robert Towns, a Sydney businessman and owner of Woodstock Cattle Station, drove a quest to find a suitable port site essential for the rapidly expanding cattle industry on the tablelands. An expedition party established a camp below the rocky spur of Melton Hill in 1864 and in 1866 Robert Towns agreed to provide ongoing financial support for the new settlement on the Ross River and Townsville was named in his honour.
Today it is a city and a great place to visit. The historic waterfront on Ross Creek is the site of the original wharves and port facilities and had some excellent old buildings mixed with a modern skyline… and is dominated by a mass of red granite called Castle Hill, 292 metres high (just 8 metres short of being a mountain) looming above it, a massive part of Townsville that according to thegotownsville has 15 different walking tracks you can take to get to the top.
The track we took was along the side of the road was lined with walkers, joggers, cyclists and runners of all ages and all with the same goal in mind – reaching the top to be rewarded with the birds-eye’ view of the city and its suburbs and panoramic views of Cleveland Bay and Magnetic Island. For those not so energetic, you can drive the windy, steep road.
We were visiting Townsville for a third time and a walk along ‘The Strand’ is always a must do for us… even on an overcast and dreary day.
This long tropical beach and garden strip stretches from the Casino and the wharf area at one end to the Jezzine Military barracks site at Kissing Point on the other.
It is a magnificent waterfront, with cafes and a few restaurants in the fabulous gardens between the road and The Strand, and fantastic beaches to swim at, of course netted for stingers when needed.
Just 29 kilometres north of Townsville, Bluewater Park our next rest stop. This free roadside stop is a traveller’s refuge just in off the Bruce Highway. It was only a 24 hour stay but sometimes that is just enough time to take a break from the road when you’re on a mission, so we set up camp and made ourselves comfortable.
Situated by a creek with a massive green recreation ground adjacent to the camping area, this camp was shady and clean and gave us a sense of space even though it was a very busy roadside stop. The facilities were clean, water was available (needed boiling), barbeques and picnic tables were provided, a busker entertained us one night and the community put on a meal and a film at the Community Centre just across the oval on the other nigh… and there was lots of wildlife and birdlife. On our last visit there was even a community fair at the recreation ground!
After a restful couple of days reading and relaxing we headed into the Paluma Range National Park. This national park is considered to be the oldest continually living rainforest in the world and the southern gateway to the Wet Tropics.
Twisting and weaving along a narrow but beautiful tree-lined road we pulled in at Little Crystal Creek Bridge, a local watering hole just perfect for swimming and camping.
Much of the Mount Spec Road we were travelling was created during the 1930’s with many of these narrow roads hand-blasted and chiselled, snaking their way through beautiful rainforest.
Crossing the Roman-style ‘Little Crystal Creek Bridge’ we continued on for quite a way before pulling in to the tiny township of Paluma.
Our trip to Paluma was only a spur of the moment detour and we were certainly not there long enough to see all of its secrets but it was enough to have us wanting to come back to explore this hidden valley.
The Paluma Rainforest is known for its quaint town, beautiful walks and tea and craft rooms and after a quick walk through the rainforest and a stop at Lake Paluma we headed back down the same road we had travelled up… but not before taking a short walking track on the outskirt of the town that led to a lookout where we had incredible views over Magnetic Island and Great Palm Island… a mystical view on a perfect day where the islands seemed to float in the blue space where water and air met.
Paluma Range National Park is divided into two sections; Mount Spec which is 61 kilometres north of Townsville and Jourama Falls, 91 kilometres north of Townsville.
Further on we detoured off the highway again along a road that took us to Big Crystal Creek and Rockslides.
Only a few kilometres inland we came across a lovely rock pool to cool off in and a great campground.
We shared this naturally enclosed pool with fish, tadpoles and turtles as we slid off the rocks into the refreshing, cool, clear waters and spent some time swimming, floating and watching clouds as they slowly drifted past and we shared the campground with some lovely people from Newcastle – welcome to our blog Noela and Pete.
Following the signs from Big Crystal Creek and the campground we walked a 2-kilometre stretch along a sealed road to beautiful waterholes where numerous small water slides plunged from high up crisscrossing from one to the other until they reached the bottom pool. The Waterslides and our new friends were definitely a highlight of this stay.
After 2-days of relaxing around waterholes we set tracks again, this time heading on to Ingham.
Of course we couldn’t miss the slogans as we drove in and the locals were very quick to tell us… ‘New York has Little Italy, Melbourne has Carlton and Queensland has Ingham’… it’s own little slice of Italy with more than half the population identifying as Italian or Italian-descent.
This town is another sugar town and owes much of its multicultural flair to the sugar cane industry, which drew Italian immigrants to our shores with the promise of work at one of the largest sugar mills in Australia, CSR. The rest, as they say in Ingham is ‘istoria’.
Shipping activities were central to Cardwell’s early history and its first jetty was constructed in 1872 and built over the water in front of the Post and Telegraph Office at the southern end of town. Within 2 – 3 years it was used to transport the first shipments of gold by sea from the newly opened northern goldfields of the Palmer River and Atherton region. Today it is a holiday, fishing and stepping off point for Hinchinbrook.
Over our travels we have witness the damage left by Cyclone Debbie and the devastation of Cyclone Yasi left behind in 2011.
Cyclone Yasi was a massive category-5 cyclone that crossed near Mission Beach, between Cairns and Townsville bringing peak wind gusts estimated at 285 kilometres per hour again destroying homes, shredding crops and smashing marinas as it roared ashore… that is without the damage it did to the surrounding islands – but now we were witnessing more damage caused by the tropical low that passed over the area earlier in the year (2019).
Yasi was a large, strong storm maintaining considerable intensity as it tracked inland into the state’s north-west, finally weakening to a tropical low as far inland as Mount Isa more than 20 hours after it crossed the coast. The towns of Cardwell, Tully, Mission Beach, Innisfail and many surrounding townships were badly damaged but the far north’s major cities of Cairns and Townsville were very lucky to escaped relatively unscathed that time… not so lucky for Townsville and the surrounding area this time!
It had been a long day of driving when we pulled in at Bilyana Rest Stop just 21 kilometres north of Cardwell.
This lovely rest stop has toilets and rubbish bins and is situated on the western side of the Bruce Highway.
It is surrounded by lots of lovely flowering tulip trees, has a bitumen surface and a large grassy area between the bitumen and railway line with plenty of room.
It was quite full when we arrived, but lucky for us there was extra space on the grass where we camped last trip. This area is right next to the railway line and it was great to watch the train zip through.
Lots of backpackers pulled in and a couple of grumpy ol’ campers who just shouldn’t be on the road!
Some campers and caravanners seem to feel they have ownership of these road side stops and don’t want to know you, let alone share space with you if you camp in a tent or look like a backpacker… and the folks camped along side us were no exception especially when more backpackers rocked up and set up camp near them… they were definitely not ‘happy campers!’
What they don’t know is they could actually be camped next to someone famous, or a millionaire, or just someone who chose not to bring their $100,000 plus van with them!
Heading on the next morning only a few kilometres along the road we pulled in to Murray Falls National Park where the road from the main highway took us through the Aboriginal Jumbun Community to beautiful swimming holes and a rainforest boardwalk that lead to the top of some of the prettiest waterfalls we had come across.
The National Parks between Townsville and Cairns really surprised us with beautiful waterholes and lots of bird and animal life and although there were no crocodiles, there were a few other things just as dangerous that kept us watching where we put our feet… and even above our heads – snakes and poisonous plants!
After spending another lovely, but rather damp evening with Noela and Peter around a campfire we packed up in rain the next morning and headed to Tully, the ‘gumboot capital of Australia’.
Tully comes complete with another of our Aussie ‘Big Things’… a giant gumboot (including a frog), and over the years has celebrated the fact that it is ‘a pretty wet place’…
… but now they tell us it vies for this title, ‘the wettest town in Australia ‘with the township of Babinda just up the road.
Needless to say, they were both pretty ‘wet places’ for us with the rain having set in pretty much all the way up the coast!
The sugar mill dominated the skyscape of Tully as we drove in, and across the road the ‘Big Gumboot’ stood proudly.
Made of fibreglass, it stands 7.9 metres high and commemorates the record-breaking year of 1950 when 7,900mm of rain fell on the town.
Sugar is this town’s primary industry, growing 22,000 hectares of the plant so I doubt the ‘I quit sugar’ book would be sold anywhere in Tully.
Tully and Balbinda might claim the title for the wettest towns in Queensland but just 200 kilometres up the road is meant to be the sunniest (not today), and our next mission was the appropriately named Mission Beach.
Last time we visited Mission Beach it had been devastated by a cyclone so hopefully this time we would capture the magic of the palm trees and white sandy beaches as we had seen on tourist brochures and postcards… even though it was a dreary, wet day!
And it did not disappoint… after exploring just a little of its 14 kilometres of unspoilt, sandy beaches fringed by the rainforest I should imagine it is truly a beautiful place on a sunny day. It is a beautiful unspoilt spot where nature takes centre stage, where the lush rainforest literally touches the shores along the coast.
There are 4 villages that are collectively known as Mission Beach… South Mission Beach, Wongaling Beach, North Mission Beach and Bingil Bay and hiding amongst the rainforest is the elusive southern cassowary, a very hard creature to sight indeed and as it turned out we would look for these majestic creatures everywhere we went over the next few months but never see one until we reached the Atherton Tablelands!
This part of the coast is known as the Cassowary Coast named after these amazing Cassowary birds. Cassowaries are an endangered species in Australia and it is believed there are only 1200-1500 of them left in the rainforests of North Queensland.
All the beaches and communities along this coast were stunning and well worth a visit when travelling this coast!
All have a backdrop of coconut palms, most are communities of retirees and fisherman (and the Australian Defence Force at Cowley Beach), so a slight detour to check out more fabulous spots – Kurramine Beach, Cowley Beach and Etty Bay was just what the east coast doctor ordered!
Innisfail, just along the road, is the regional centre of the Cassowary Coast.
Situated on the Johnstone River between World Heritage rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef it has a very interesting history.
European cedar cutters and Chinese gold seekers were the first settlers here, arriving in the 1870s and early in the 1880s. Apparently with the opening of the Palmer goldfields on the Cape and other mineral discoveries there came a rush of multi-cultural settlers, which lead to the establishment of Cairns in 1876.
Innisfail was called Geraldton until 1911 and was founded by Thomas Fitzgerald in 1880 who took up a large land grant funded by the ‘Catholic Bishop of Brisbane’ and ‘All Hallows Sisters of Mercy’. With 10 Irish and 35 South Sea Islanders as workers, he began planting sugar cane in the cleared rainforest lands with little success… but those who followed him did better and the community began to grow rapidly on the proceeds of sugar production.
Continuing on we came to Gordonvale where we turned onto the Atherton Road and pulled over for a cuppa to wait for Noela and Peter to catch us up.
We were now just under 24-kilometres from the city of Cairns but our plans of heading into Cairns had been abandoned as as we planned to spend a few more nights camping camping with our friends.
Gordonvale is an interesting old sugar town centred around its mill and has grown from a country town to now a suburb of the sprawling greater Cairns.
On our last trip, we had set up camp under the bridge at the Gordanvale Rest Area on the Mulgrave River. Not the nicest camp we have ever stayed at but now that camp didn’t exist and the area was being completely revamped.
The plan this time was to set up camp at ‘Ross and Locke Reserve’, a free camp Noela and Pete had camped at a number of times.
Dead car bodies and bits of metal were strewn across the track as we drove in to Ross and Locke Reserve and it didn’t take long to be convinced by a local walking his dog to move further up the road to camp at ‘Little Mulgrave Creek’ – just before the ‘Mountain View Hotel’, and just along Little Mulgrave Road that leads to ‘Catch a Burra’.
With inclement weather still persisting we set up camp on the rocky foreshore of the beautiful creek and what started out as a 1-night camp soon turned into 3. We enjoyed one another’s company around campfires, relaxed by the creek with our books and explored the rocky edges and ancient trees along the creekside.
Read a more detailed guide to this area to Cairns and beyond from our previous east coast travels at… https://tassiesnowbirds.com/2018/06/01/queensland-part-1-the-gold-coast-to-rocky-beyond-come-travel-with-us/
Cairns is a beautiful city on the edge of the Coral Sea, surrounded by mountains and rainforests.
With its tropical climate and year-round sunshine, the seafront is usually the height of activity with crowds of people making the most of the tropical climate as they pound the boardwalk that stretches for 2.5 kilometres or swim and laze around in the large lagoon style pool.
Cairns is also home to some of the world’s most amazing natural attractions; the Great Barrier Reef, the Wet Tropics rainforest and the Australian Outback and is also the party town of the East Coast where most backpackers start or finish their Aussie trip.
From Cairns the road heads north along Captain Cook highway toward Port Douglas and the drive from Cairns to Port Douglas is one of Australia’s most scenic coastal drives that passes beautiful beaches. There is Palm Cove with a great campground where we had camped on our previous trip and Ellis Beach (where we have also camped a couple of times), a bit further down the road.
Ellis Beach is about 30 minutes north of the centre of Cairns and is just a speck on the highway but it is a magic spot with a campground right on the beach and it is without a doubt a beautiful spot.
The further north you travel the beaches continued in the theme of all the beaches along this coast… palm trees, crystal clear blue water, and white sand with the beach communities of Machans Beach, Holloways Beach, Yorkeys Knob, Trinity Beach, Kewarra Beach, Clifton Beach, Palm Cove and Ellis Beach between Cairns and Port Douglas.
Port Douglas is a stylish coastal town known for its clothing boutiques, and fine dining, low-rise buildings and wide streets and is the closest town to the Great Barrier Reef lying just 16 degrees below the equator.
It is a former fishing village but is now more of a holiday destination with an abundance of cafes, restaurants and bars.
We were now heading to the top of the ranges where high altitude and volcanic soil make for a veritable smorgasbord everywhere you look… from dairy cows, to tea plantations, a waterfall circuit, curtain fig trees, National Parks and cassowaries the Atherton Tablelands is a must stop for those on the road… and only a short drive from Cairns!