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Trip Report Trip Report: Australia, Nov 2012 (Great Ocean Rd and North Queensland)

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We recently returned from a wonderful trip to Australia, where we spent seven nights in Victoria (Great Ocean Rd and the Grampians) and ten nights in Far North Queensland (Port Douglas, Cooktown, Undara and the Atherton Tablelands). This was the latest of many trips Down Under (my wife is an Aussie). Our choice of places was based on the fact neither my wife or I had seen much of Victoria before, as well as our desire to see the total solar eclipse in North Qld on 14 Nov.

We were joined on this trip by two very good friends, an American couple who had previously not been to Australia. We all shared a common interest in the outdoors, but with some differences - I was very interested in hiking and climbing; our friends were very keen on seeing wildlife, especially birds. The girls were less into hiking, and wanted opportunities to relax and shop. Our friends, more so than us, were food connoisseurs. All in all, despite these differences, I think it all worked out well for everyone.

Our joint trip started at the Sydney domestic terminal on 5 Nov where we met for the flight to Melbourne. Here, we picked up a car (a minivan) and immediately headed out of the city southwest toward Geelong.

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    The car we rented was a Hyundai minivan, an iMax. Although we had more than enough room, we all agreed it was underpowered. And considering there were only four of us, I cant imagine how it would have performed if it was used to capacity, seating 8. A bigger gripe was the rental company, East Coast Rentals. At the time, the name of the firm was vaguely familiar and it was only later that I remembered we had rented from them on the Gold Coast several years earlier and had not been impressed. I'll get into our recent problem with East Coast later in the report, but here I will point out that after searching this forum, I see others too have had complaints. See:

    http://www.fodors.com/community/australia-the-pacific/east-coast-car-rentals-anyone-used-them.cfm

    The weather on the first day was, unfortunately, cloudy and cool. After Geelong, we diverted westward briefly for lunch in the lovely historic town of Queenscliff, stopping at a bakery for some tastey meat pies. Like many Australian towns, there was an information center, where we loaded up on maps and suggestions from the very friendly lady behind the desk. After Anglesea, the heavy-duty coast-hugging part of the GOR began, with stunning views from cliffs and beaches up and down the coast. Too bad the weather was less than optimal.
    As it turned out, out timing coincided with the Melbourne Cup long weekend, so the area was busier than usual, especially around Lorne, which was bustling on a Monday afternoon.

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    We arrived in Apollo Bay late in the afternoon on Nov 6. Being further away from the big city, it was noticeably quieter there than it had been in Lorne that long holiday weekend. We found our B&B, Nelson's Perch, in a nice location: walking distance (maybe 1 km) to the pubs and restaurants and across the street from open fields and nice views of the hills. Apart from the rooms being a bit on the small side, we found Nelson's Perch clean and comfortable the proprietors to friendly and helpful. The continental breakfasts (with homemade bread) were good.

    After settling into our rooms, we set off into town, first celebrating the start of our trip with a few pints or pots of beer at the Apollo Bay Hotel. Over beers, we decided we'd try out the Italian restaurant diagonally across the street for dinner. The food at Casalingo was great but the staff seemed a bit stretched and service was somewhat below par.

    Being jet-lagged, we were up early the next morning. My birder friend "Laurenzo" and I took a pre-breakfast walk up the road, binoculars at the ready. We could hear distant kookaburras but spotting one just didn't happen. However, my friend was delighted to spot a beautiful superb fairy wren, the first of many we would see in Victoria.

    So on the first full day traveling together, we set off in our van to do the inland circuit via Skene's Creek, Beech Forest, the Otway Fly and Lavers Hill. Though the early morning was mostly overcast, we saw more and more of the sun as the day progressed. We enjoyed beautiful lush open scenery as we headed inland. Heading toward Beech Forest, the road wound through kilometers of dense temperate rainforest, with tall eucalyptus trees and an understory of prehistoric-looking tree ferns.

    Our first stop was the Otway Fly, a private reserve of temperate rainforest with an impressive elevated walkway suspended high up in the trees as well as a zip-line for thrill seekers. We used a discount coupon from our B&B that reduced the entry fee to about $18 per person (discounted from $24). After seeing the rainforest from on high, we grabbed lunch at the Otway Fly kiosk and drove a short distance into the Great Otway National Park. Here we took in the rainforest from the ground level, walking a few kilometers to enjoy Little Aire and Triplet waterfalls.

    Heading back to Apollo Bay via Lavers Hill we stopped at the spectacular lookout over the ocean at Glenaire for photos. Back at Nelson's Perch in the late afternoon, we all took a stroll down the country lane, looking for birds of course. It was somewhere around this time my wife put up a challenge: our friends had visited Africa the year before and had spotted 163 species of birds - our mission was now for Australia to beat Africa in the bird count. At this point I think Laurenzo's count was something like 25. We had some work to do!.

    That evening it was the Apollo Bay Hotel for beers and delicious fresh takeaway fish and chips from the Apollo Bay Seafood Cafe.

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    The next morning (Nov. 7) we continued westward on the Great Ocean Rd. Not far out Apollo Bay, we diverted south through the Great Otway National Park toward the Cape Otway light station. We had heard we might see koalas in the area but certainly were not expecting to see dozens. In one place, on both sides of the road, there must have been a total of forty up in the trees, some just yards away near eye level, several with joeys. We stopped at three or four different spots to see the koalas and of course, ours wasn't the only vehicle stopped by the roadside for koala watching.

    We parked at the light station and paid the entry fee (about $20). Then we took a stroll around the grounds and toured the light house and telegraph station. The sun was now shining making the views up and down the coast all the more enjoyable. I found the historical information provided in the telegraph house to be very interesting.

    Next, we headed back to the main road and again headed west. Getting hungry, we drove a few kilometers past the parking for the Twelve Apostles to the town of Port Campbell for an excellent lunch at the 12 Rocks Bar and Beach Cafe.

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    Backtracking a few kilometers back the Twelve Apostles, we had a lucky encounter with another exotic Australian animal - an echnida (an egg-laying porcupine-like mammal) waddling along on the edge of the road. We stopped, snapped a few pictures of the little guy, and prodded him away from the road into the bushes.

    At the Twelve Apostles parking lot, we were quite surprised at the number of people - tour buses, campers, cars etc. Seeing that it had been so quiet on the road and elsewhere, the crowd seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. I had seen the Twelve Apostles previously in 1986, and as I remembered, the sight really is magnificent with towering cliffs and crashing surf far below. The only differences were the crowd and the fact that one or two of the Apostles have since crumbled into the ocean.

    We next stopped at the Loch Ord Gorge. There were fewer people there, but nonetheless, we sought even more space by taking the path to the Muttonbird Island Lookout and Broken Head. This was well worth it - awesome scenery framed by impressive cloud formations and the lighting of a late afternoon sun. Giant waves crashed against rocks sending spray high into the wind.

    We stopped at a couple of the other major lookouts in the area - London Bridge and The Arch. Again, both were well worth it, especially in the late afternoon light. When I visited in 1986, London Bridge really was a bridge and I was able to walk out to the end. Sadly, it collapsed in 1990, but it still remains a beautiful sight.

    Now heading toward Port Fairy, our destination that day, we stopped for a time outside Peterborough for some estuarine birdwatching on Curdies Inlet. Here, we saw pelicans and Australian black swans, among a few other new birds adding to the Australia list.

    We arrived in Port Fairy just before dark, found our accommodation, the Garden Pavilions, and set out to find a place to eat. (You don't want leave it too late in small Australian country towns). We settled on Remella's Cafe on Bank Street, a Mediterranean styled restaurant - nothing flash from the sidewalk, but the food was great and the service was very friendly. NOTE - so far, no complaints at all about the food on trip! As you'll see, with few exceptions, our good fortune continued.

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    We were very pleased with the our accommodation at the Garden Pavilions in Port Fairy - each couple had a cozy self contained mini-cottage to themselves. Each had high ceilings, tasteful furnishings, gas pot belly stove, and a kitchenette. However, considering we had just one night there, the accommodation offered more than we really needed.

    Since breakfast was not provided at the Garden Pavilions, we set off into town in the morning for breakfast, during which we decided to spend the morning in and around Port Fairy before heading inland to the Grampians.

    First, we took the lovely short walk around Griffith Island, close to town. Here, our friends got their first look at a member of the kangaroo family - one of the island's swamp wallabies. The island is well known as as a shearwater (mutton bird) rookery, and we were happy to catch sight of one these ocean going seabirds.

    After Griffith's Island, we drove about 12 kilometers west along the coast to The Crags, a rugged section of coastline with great views along the coast and out to Lady Julia Percy Island, home to thousands of seals. Here, as in other places, my friend Laurenzo had his scope and tripod set up bird spotting.

    Back in town, we split up - the girls for shopping (including grocery shopping for our house in the Grampians) and Laurenzo for more bird watching down by the harbour. I walked around town, taking pictures of nice old buildings and pubs and learning bits of the town's nineteenth century whaling and sealing history.

    We met for lunch, watching cricket on the TV in the Caledonian Hotel (Victoria's oldest pub). Then we set out for Hall's Gap heading north through Penshurst and Dunkeld, arriving in Hall's Gap in mid-afternoon. Our accommodation was Inyanga, a house within walking distance of the town center - three bedrooms, two baths, kitchen, living room, deck and gas barbeque. The decor was pretty basic, yet the property was clean and well maintained. We had a view over a grass field toward Boronia Peak, which we climbed on our second day.

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    Thanks Bokhara and Toucan!

    After settling into Inyanga, we set out for a walk around town. Though it lacks historic charm, Hall's Gap is beautifully situated between high ridges of the Grampians, nature close at hand. On the cricket pitch (field) we spotted a mob of kangaroos (the first real 'roos our friends saw) grazing on the grass. There were birds everywhere, and again for the first time, we saw kookaburras close at hand. Walking back to our house, we saw more 'roos grazing on people's yards.

    That evening, it was an eat-in dinner of meat pies and salad bought in Port Fairy. In fact we ate in for most of our meals in Hall's Gap, saving a few $'s.

    Unfortunately, the weather the next morning was mostly overcast and cooler than what I expected for November. We parked at the Brambuk Visitor Center to take a leisurely stroll on the 2.5 km Fyans Creek Loop. Kangaroos hopped all over the place and there were loads of birds to be seen including laughing kookaburras, squawking parrots and flightless emus. We even saw a few feral deer.

    Thinking the weather might be improving, we then headed up into the mountains. Just after taking in the wonderful, but cloud-subdued view over Hall's Gap at Boroka Lookout, a cold rain started falling. We therefore nixed plans for further mountain exploration and decided to return to Inyanga for lunch.

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    tarquin: we pre-booked all our accommodation. It's a smart thing to do, especially around school holidays.

    Continuing the report:

    The weather had improved by the afternoon. At the suggestion of a woman at the visitors center, we struck out for the deserted Heatherlie Quarry, a public reserve about 14 kilometers north of Halls Gap along a well-graded dirt road. Here we took a short trail that wound its way among old stone buildings and the rusted hulks of quarry equipment – boilers, steam engines and cranes. Of course the main reason for the visit was for bird watching opportunities, but that afternoon, in broad daylight, there were not a lot of birds about.

    From Heatherlie, we took a leisurely drive on backroads through pretty countryside east of the Grampians, stopping here and there for bird spotting and enjoying views of the ranges to the west. Back in Hall’s Gap we took the easy walk up to the Venus Baths, natural rock pools at the base of the mountain escarpment. This walk had only recently reopened after having been closed for repairs after a devastating flood in 2010. [Indeed, a number of trails and roads in the national park had been closed after the flood and some remained that way.] Bird spotting was better here, maybe because of the time of day – notable sightings included exotic gang-gang cockatoos and sacred kingfishers.

    In the early evening we left town again for a short walk along the edge of Lake Fyans, spotting some new water birds including distinctive great-crested grebes. Next we stopped at the town of Pomonal for dinner at Barny’s Bar and Bistro. This was an interesting place, apparently a former sheep shearing shed clad in corrugated metal. I would have said the food was great were it not for the fact we all had ordered our meat (beef and kangaroo) medium-rare and it came out well done. I suppose we could have made more of a stink. Instead, we politely complained and continued. The owner or manager came out to apologize but that was it – you’d think he could have given us a bottle of wine or something :-)

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    On our second full day in the Grampians (Saturday, Nov. 10), the weather was quite nice, so after a quick morning walk back up to the Venus Baths, we headed up the mountain. Our first stop was the wonderful view at Reeds Lookout, combined with the short (~1 km) walk to the Balconies – a similar view to Reeds, but with huge sandstone rocks jutting out over the valley below. The walk also featured a great view in the other direction (west) toward Lake Wartook and mountains beyond. Next we tool the walk overlooking MacKenzie Falls (Victoria’s largest falls), several kilometers further down the road. We had hoped to return to Halls Gap without having to backtrack, but alas, the Silverband Road, which would have allowed us to do a loop, was closed due flood damage.

    Back in the Gap, we grabbed lunch at a café in town. In the afternoon, Larenzo and I left the girls behind to relax and drove down to the Brambuk center where we started up the track (a little over 3 km long) that climbs Boronia Peak. This was a really nice walk, a modest grade most of the way except for a steep rocky part at the top. On the way up we could see our rented house in the valley, and then, from the other side of the ridge, we looked down over Pomonal and Lake Fyans, where we had been the evening before. Although we had seen several people coming down on our way up, we had the rocky open summit to ourselves, where we enjoyed the fabulous view over Halls Gap, Lake Bellfield and the Grampian Mountains beyond. On the summit we also had a notable bird sighting – a trio of large yellow-tailed black cockatoos flying over the ridgeline below us.

    That evening, dinner was at the house - “sausages on the barbie”, classic Aussie style.

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    On Sunday morning , November 11, we packed up, checked out of Inyanga and departed Halls Gap, starting on our way back to Melbourne. On the way out, we stopped again at a couple of spots on Lake Fyans for some productive bird watching. [Indeed at this point, our last full day in Victoria, we had sighted roughly half of our target number of 163 species to beat Laurenzo’s Africa record.]

    This Sunday was probably the most beautiful day of the entire trip – not a cloud in the sky, warm but not hot. On the way to Stawell, we passed dozens of bicyclists out on a fundraising drive – pretty countryside, level terrain and lovely weather must have made an enjoyable day out. From Stawell, we took the Western Highway to the southeast. At the town of Great Western, we diverted to the Seppelt winery, well known in Australia as a producer of sparkling wines. Here we bought a bottle of their excellent sparkling shiraz and decided to do take the winery tour after lunch. Sallinger’s Café, one of the few options for eating in this small town, was closed, but we were happy to find that the Grampians Estate winery, just outside of town on the main road, offered tasty cheese plate lunches.

    The Seppelt winery tour was very interesting and informative and included a section of “The Drives”, an extensive system (almost 3 km!) of underground tunnels lined with stacks and stacks of maturing sparkling wine bottles. These were dug in the 1860’s employing miners who had come to the region during the Victorian Gold Rush.

    We ate dinner that evening in Ballarat, famous for its gold rush history and the 19th century Eureka Stockade, a defining moment in the development of democracy in Australia. Our choice was the Mallow Hotel, a “gastropub” on Skipton Street. I voted this our best meal experience in all of our time Down Under. The dinners were superb, and there was a good selection of local beers to sample. Like any pub, the atmosphere was casual and we ordered our meals at the bar. Nonetheless, the staff were extraordinarily friendly and accommodating.

    At the opposite end of “friendly and accommodating” was East Coast Rentals when we returned our vehicle that evening. We had called ahead to say we would return the vehicle the night before our flight to Cairns, not the morning of. They indicated it would be okay as long as we arrived before 9:30 PM. We arrived at about 9:00 and the office was closed! But just as we were to leave, one of the staff zoomed in by car to get our keys. Unapologetic, he seemed annoyed when I asked him for a final receipt (requiring him to log in the computer) and refused to go out of his way a few kilometers to drop us off at our hotel. Instead he insisted on dropping us off at the airport. East Coast Rentals: never again!

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    We flew to north Queensland the next morning, landing in Cairns around midday. The arrivals area was bustling with people, presumably eclipse-chasers like us. It took a while in line for us to pick up our rental vehicle, a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado (4WD). Heading north, we stopped for lunch at a deli in Palm Cove. Strong trade winds blew from off the ocean, whipping up waves and white caps on what is normally calm water protected by the Barrier Reef offshore - not exactly the weather you want to see when you have boat trip out to the reef booked for the next morning!

    We arrived in Port Douglas in mid-afternoon after a nice drive along the scenic Cook Highway, which closely hugs the coast part of the way. Here, we checked into at the Frangipani Bed and Breakfast, a few kilometers from the town center and only a couple of hundred meters from Four Mile Beach. I think we'd all agree Frangipani was our favorite accommodation for the trip - spacious rooms with verandas overlooking a tropical garden and aqua pool. And our hosts, Bob and Leona, were fantastic, making us feel very welcome and putting on a top notch continental breakfast each morning.

    That evening we enjoyed dinner at the Beach Shack restaurant on southern end of Four Mile Beach - great service and good food.

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    Having left the doors to our verandah open during the night, we awoke early on the morning of the 13th to a cacophony of parrots (rainbow lorikeets most likely) in the trees outside our unit. We strolled down to the beach for sunrise getting a feel for what to expect for the solar eclipse the next morning. We weren't the only ones - a few people were already setting up fancy tripods, cameras and scopes, practicing for the real thing.

    Fortunately for us, the weather was looking better and the wind had died down quite a lot. We drove over to the Marina Mirage where we boarded Wavelength, our boat out to the Barrier Reef. This was a good choice - unlike the big catamarans like Quicksilver, the number of passengers was pretty small (about 30). The staff were friendly, knowledgeable and professional, and since it was not a dive boat, all efforts were focused on providing a quality snorkeling experience. All snorkeling gear was provided, including stinger suits for protection against deadly box jellyfish - rare on the reef, but a risk nonetheless.

    The ride to the reef took about two hours. Although the wind had abated, the crossing was rough. An occasional wave splashed over the deck and a few people (like me) got wet. Dramamine pills had been passed out in port and no one got seasick. Closer to the reef, the sun was shining and the water was noticeably calmer. We visited three different spots for snorkeling. It was excellent: the reef looked healthy, the coral was varied and beautiful, and we saw lots of fish (Nemo included). Except for giant clams and a few medium-sized fish, we didn't see large creatures like turtles, reef sharks or mantas on this occasion. At one of the sites, we took a guided snorkel tour led by one of the staff, which was quite informative. Lunch was served after the first two snorkels.

    We arrived back in Port Douglas late in the afternoon. On the return we saw a huge cruise ship moored off the headland, undoubtedly filled with eclipse chasers awaiting the big event now only hours away. A catamaran docked alongside the ship to ferry people to shore.

    Dinner that evening was take-out fish and chips from a place just around the corner, which we enjoyed in the lovely garden of our B&B.

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    November 14th – Eclipse Day! Getting up very early, we went straight over to the beach for sunrise. Prospects for seeing the total phase of the eclipse looked okay; although there were lots of clouds, especially toward the eastern horizon in the area of the sun’s path, there was also plenty of blue sky. The sunrise was beautiful, and shortly thereafter, a small bite off the sun’s disc became apparent on the upper left. As the eclipse progressed, we were joined on the beach by a throng of other eclipse watchers – here, on Four Mile Beach, there must have been thousands, all hoping that the clouds would not ruin the show. For the next hour or so, the suspense built as the sun, a narrowing crescent, slipped in and out of the clouds. Then, just seconds before totality, it emerged from behind a cloud. As the sun finally disappeared behind the moon, the diamond ring (aka Baily’s Beads) sparkled and the dazzling halo of the sun's corona popped into view. The crowd erupted in wild applause. (My wife says the best part was watching my reaction!) Totality lasted for two minutes. Although stars came out, the glow of twilight could be seen on the seaward horizon. A menacing cloud spoiled the last seconds of totality at our location. Nonetheless were considered ourselves extremely lucky to have seen as much of the eclipse as we did. Some people up and down the coast were not as fortunate as us, while some, especially people sited inland on the Atherton Tablelands had an unimpeded view for the duration of totality.

    This video, posted a woman standing a mile or so north of us, is pretty close to what we saw and captures the drama of the final moments before totality:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKt8UlkiAUA

    After the total phase, the sun again disappeared behind clouds. We lost patience and decided to head back to Frangipani for breakfast, occasionally checking out the final partial phase of the eclipse from poolside.

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    Weather for the rest of the day (Nov 14) was quite nice, partly cloudy, and not too hot. Later in the morning, we drove up to Mossman Gorge for the Daintree rainforest walk. This is undoubtedly a beautiful spot, but, like Port Douglas nearby, it has been by tourism somewhat. On our first visit there in 1984, there was a small carpark and maybe half a dozen cars. We had the place more or less to ourselves. On our return in 2008, the carpark was crammed with cars parked up and down the road for several hundred meters. In 2012, it was pleasing to see a new visitor’s center built well outside the park with shuttle busses running people in and out. Still, with all its popularity, it’s hardly a place to quietly commune with nature nowadays.

    Next stop was Bruce Belcher’s Daintree River Cruise. This wasn’t bad from the birdwatching perspective (we saw a Papuan frogmouth, for example) and we did get to see a few crocodiles. And the ladies in the reception were lovely, giving us free meat pies for lunch. But we weren’t impressed with our guide, who was basically reciting a script – interrupt him and he’d rewind the tape and repeat some of what he just said.

    Later in the afternoon, we puttered around Port Douglas looking for a place to book dinner. While the girls shopped, Laurenzo and I grabbed a refreshing schooner of beer at the Court House Hotel, a pretty location across the street from Anzac Park and the water. We booked dinner just down the street at 2Fish Restaurant.

    Dinner at 2Fish that evening was excellent, albeit quite expensive – great service and great seafood.

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    Thanks toucan! Rereading my previous post I see I left the word “spoiled” out of the sentence referring to tourism and Mossman Gorge.

    On Thursday, Nov. 15, we put our big 4WD to the test. Saying goodbye to Bob and Leona at Frangipani, we headed north, taking the ferry over the Daintree River toward Cape Tribulation and Cooktown. The weather was a bit dicey – occasional sun, but mostly clouds and some showers. On the Cape Trib road, we made several stops, first, the Alexandra Lookout for a nice view of the Daintree River mouth, and then three short rainforest walks – Jindalba, Maardja and Dubuji. My favorite was the Maardja, with elevated sections over a mangrove swamp and spectacular basket ferns growing on trees.

    For lunch, at Leona’s suggestion, we stopped at the food kiosk at Cape Tribulation Camping where we enjoyed superb wood-fired pizzas over beers. While waiting for our pizzas, we strolled down to the beach, only about 100 meters away.

    North of Cape Trib, the paved road ends and the rugged, unsealed Bloomfield Track begins. Since November is usually considered the beginning of the Wet Season in the far north, we were expecting, even concerned, about the stream crossings en route. However, as we soon learned, the Wet Season was yet to break - our first crossing (Emmagen Creek) was a breeze. Nonetheless, we were still pleased to have our 4WD as some sections of the track were extremely steep and rough in places.

    Our first stop on the Bloomfield Track was South Cowie beach, a stunning broad expanse of white sand with isolated mangroves trees and a lush mountain backdrop. We spent a good hour here – the birdwatching was good and the armies of tiny soldier crabs marching en mass across the sand were fascinating. And...we had the whole place to ourselves!

    At the small Aboriginal community of Wujal Wujal, we took a short detour to see the beautiful Wujal Wujal Falls, a short, but rough walk from the end of the service road. After Wujal, the road improved, with sections of bitumen here and there. We stopped occasionally for bird spotting - forest kingfishers became a fairly common sight on power lines. Shortly before hitting the main road (the Mulligan Hwy) to Cooktown, we stopped for a beer at the Lions Den Hotel, a famous old pub in the bush, and a must-do for anyone passing by.

    By the time we arrived in Cooktown, it was dark. We checked into our townhouse at the Seaview Motel, and without wasting much time, took dinner at the Sovereign Hotel just down the street. I think we all had barramundi - very good!

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    After Frangipani, the Seaview Motel was somewhat of a shock to the system - furnishings and décor were basic, and kitchenware was lacking. Nonetheless, it was clean, conveniently located near the center of town and had great views over the Endeavour River from the front.

    The next morning, we were up early for breakfast across the street at the Cook's Landing Kiosk. When we last visited in 2008, the kiosk was a great place for dinner, but now, with new ownership, it is only open for breakfast and lunch.

    After breakfast, Willie Gordon, owner and operator of Guurrbi (Aboriginal) Tours, met us at the Seaview in his small tour bus. After picking up a few other people en route, we headed north into the hills close to the aboriginal community of Hope Vale, where Willie led us on a walking tour of his ancestral land and rock art sites. The commentary was personal and thought provoking, going beyond simply explaining bush tucker and relating dreamtime stories. Willie’s smile and soft-spoken warmness drew us all in. It’s no wonder his tour has been so widely acclaimed.

    Returning to Cooktown at mid-day, we picked up some groceries and took lunch back at the Seaview. It was the hottest day we had experienced on the trip and we naturally ended up spending part of the afternoon relaxing in the pool just outside our front door. In the late afternoon, we drove to top of Grassy Hill for sunset, taking in the great view of Cooktown, the Endeavor River, distant hills and the ocean.

    For dinner we ate at The Italian Restaurant in Cooktown – better than it’s unassuming name might suggest. Very friendly and accommodating – we had brought our own wine and beer, mistakenly thinking it was a BYO. That didn’t matter - the owner let us drink it anyway! We liked The Italian Restaurant so much we went back again the next evening.

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    Geez, I’d better finish this report before I forget what we did!

    Making use of the basic cooking accoutrements provided, we started the next day (Saturday, Nov. 17) preparing breakfast in our unit at the Seaview. We then took walks around the Cooktown Botanic Gardens and along the pretty beach at Finch Bay nearby. By mid-morning it was getting hot, too hot to walk comfortably on the sand without shoes. Driving a short distance out of town, we visited Keatings Lagoon, a billabong decorated by large white waterlillies and teeming with waterbirds. Larenzo logged in several new species of waterbirds here. A bird blind by the water’s edge provided needed shade and a good vantage point for spotting.

    After lunch back at the unit, Laurenzo and I took a quick jaunt up Grassy Hill again to take in the view in the bright midday sunshine and take pictures. We could see a section of the Great Barrier Reef out to sea, a turquoise strip lying near the horizon. We were reminded that, here, in1770 Capt. James Cook charted his route to the open ocean after coming to shore to repair his ship, damaged in an unfortunate encounter with the reef near Cape Tribulation.

    We picked up the girls and then retraced our route with Willie Gordon the previous day north to the Hope Vale Aboriginal community. Going beyond turnoff Willie had taken, we went into the center of the settlement looking for the gas station where we had been told we could purchase a permit for entering Aboriginal land. Unfortunately, not a soul was about, not even at the police station, so we continued on our way headed for Elim Beach and the Coloured Sands. The road turned from bitumen to gravel and then to sand. It was very rough in sections – no way were we doing this without our Prado! Seeing the shells of several burned-out vehicles en route was slightly unnerving and the final rough section of road seemed to go on and on and on. We turned off for Elim Beach where we parked and paid the friendly chap running the camping site $10 for our Aboriginal land permit. Except for a family camped near the beach, the place was deserted.

    As it turned out, the ride out to Elim Beach was well worth it – what a stunning place! The beach is dominated by the mesa-like headland of Cape Bedford just to the south. Tall white sand dunes near the coast were visible to the north. As at South Cowie Beach, isolated mangrove trees stood here and there on a broad expanse of sand exposed at low tide. The sun was getting low, casting long shadows good for photography. And Laurenzo was in his element spotting new species of shore birds with his scope.

    Since it was getting late, we opted out of a visit to the Coloured Sands and headed back to Cooktown. We stopped several times along he way to identify birds roosting on roadside power lines.

    Okay...only five more days to go!

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    Thank you Margo!

    On Sunday Nov. 20, we left Cooktown following the Mulligan Highway south toward Mareeba on the Atherton Tablelands. Since this road tracks inland, the terrain is much different to that along the coast (Bloomfield Track) – mostly dry, scrubby woodland, as opposed to tropical rainforest. We briefly stopped at the Black Mountain lookout (just outside Cooktown), as well as at lookouts in the Great Dividing Range with commanding views over empty, sparse landscapes.

    At Biboorha, just before the large town of Mareeba, we turned west on the unsealed road leading into the Jabiru Safari Lodge and the Mareeba Wetlands. As we waited for our safari cabins to be readied, we ate lunch in the lovely open dining area in the lodge with its sweeping view over the Mareeba Wetlands just a few meters away. It was another hot day – our cabins, cooled only by fans, were sweltering inside, at least until we open up flaps at the front to let fresh air in.

    Although we had a lot of fun at the Jabiru Safari Lodge, it was a bit disappointing. Paying almost US$500 per couple per night we were expecting more than what we got. We soon learned that there had recently been a change in ownership and a complete turnover of staff. We had timed our arrival for a much-anticipated sunset cruise and tour, yet this fact seemed to have lost in the shuffle. So, after showing the nice lady at the desk the details of our booking, a guide showed up for duty. Jason was a great guy and very much the stereotypical Steve Irwin–Crocodile Dundee type in a khaki outfit and boots. “Wildlife expert” he was not, but did have a lot of experience and stories as a bushman, specializing in control of feral animals, a huge problem in Australia.

    First, Jason took us for a putter around the lake in the small boat docked outside the lodge. We didn’t see that much bird-wise (the electric motor wasn’t working necessitating the use of a noisy gasoline outboard), but what was impressive was the massive thundercloud building up in the direction of the lodge. It was looking like the Wet Season was finally going to break.

    After the cruise, Jason took us around the property, in a dilapidated old Jeep. Just as we set off, a loud clap of thunder nearby rocked us and it began to pour. Fortunately the shower was brief and we continued on our way, seeing ‘roos, frilled lizards, turtles, thousands of termite mounds and lots of birds. We stopped at a bird blind overlooking a lake at the far end of the property where we saw a couple of jabirus (Asian black necked storks) wading in the water. Jason pointed out the sad fact that there are few goannas (large Australian lizards) about these days, casualties of the poison-skinned feral cane toad. We also saw damage caused by another pest – feral pigs. Heading back to the lodge, the sun was getting low, piercing a damp orange haze silhouetting trees and termite mounds, reflecting off the water. It was a very beautiful scene.

    As it turned out, the loud lightning strike had struck the lodge, which was now out of power and quite dark. I have to say the staff did a great job under the situation, setting up candles on tables while preparing for dinner. A spread of cheese, crackers and hors d’oeurves was laid out with bottles of wine. Enjoying the wine and the sunset over the wetland, we broke the ice with the other guests, couples from the Netherlands and the USA. Dinner was late, but that was understandable under the circumstances, and no one cared that much, since the wine kept flowing. The food wasn’t bad – grilled chicken, overcooked broccoli and some potatoes – but hardly what we might have expected based on the tariff.

    At some point power was restored and the lights came back on. No one was feeling any pain at this point and we all gladly accepted an invite from Jason to do some wildlife night spotting from his Jeep. We all piled in and rode off into the bush in the dark. We didn’t see anything in the trees, but we did sight a few bettongs (small kangaroos) hopping along in the grass.

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    Laurenzo was up early the next morning for birdwatching, the rest of us, perhaps a bit hung over, slept in. Breakfast was a disappointment: cold milk and cereal, tinned fruit cocktail and supermarket bread in contrast to the fresh fruit, homemade bread we typically enjoyed elsewhere.

    From Jabiru, we turned back to the main road, stopping to spot Australian bustards in an uncultivated sugar cane field en route. From the town of Mareeba on the edge of the Atherton Tablelands, we headed west toward Dimbulah and Chillagoe on the Bourke Development Road. We anticipated there would be few if any opportunities to eat once we turned south toward Undara (our goal for the day) and so decided to take an early lunch at the Funky Mango Café in Dimbulah. I ordered a delicious Aussie burger (complete with beetroot and pineapple) while the others enjoyed tasty sandwiches.

    After Dimbulah, the countryside looked decidedly browner and drier, and along with the lack of water in the streambeds, offered clear evidence that the Wet Season had yet to break. Shortly after the desolate township of Almaden, we turned south on the Ootan Road toward Undara and Mt Surprise. Though not particularly far from civilization, this stretch gave our friends a good taste of Outback Australia - we did not see another soul for miles. The road was mostly unpaved as it wound its way through the dry, rugged terrain crossing dry riverbeds here and there. A few signs warned of road trains, leaving us wondering how they could possibly negotiate some of the crossings. Free ranging cattle roamed across the road in places. We stopped occasionally for bird watching, stepping from the air-conditioned comfort of our Prado into 100 degree heat.

    Finally reaching the paved Gulf Development Road, we turned east and then south on the road leading into the Undara Volcanic National Park. We checked in at the Undara Lodge where we settled into two of the comfortable air-conditioned Pioneer Huts that had recently been built. These were one of several changes my wife had I noted since our first visit there in 1994. Fortunately, one of the things that hadn’t changed was the friendliness and professionalism of the staff, which made our brief visit again very enjoyable.

    The girls were not up to hiking in heat, so it was just Laurenzo and I who struck out into the bush, climbing the bluff behind the lodge and then descending to the open lava plains beyond. Laurenzo picked up a few new birds while I sat enjoying the view from the top of the bluff. Kangaroos hopped along here and there.

    Dinner that night at the lodge was good as were the cold refreshing beers we drank to wash it down. I had kangaroo again, this time cooked perfectly as opposed to my experience at Barneys in Victoria the week before. A sudden emergence of flying ants swarming around the lights in the spacious outdoor dining area forced us to eat in the more sheltered confines outside the bar, an adapted and restored railroad carriage. After dinner, I joined a few others for a fireside chat by one of the staff, this night dedicated to photography and the challenges posed by picture-taking in the lava caves nearby. Laurenzo and the girls got talking to the general manager, who was very helpful suggesting places for good bird watching the next day.

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    Still reading Ralph. Were there restrictions on taking the rental car on unpaved roads? Who did you rent from? How long did the drive to Undara take? I'm mulling over visiting Chillagoe (possibly with AlanJG) and have been eyeing Undara as well.

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    A Chillagoe Undara loop can be done. I would recommend a stop over in one of the places. I'll have to check the traveling times as google maps is not allowing this route.

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    Toucan: I would have liked to have visited Chillagoe again, but I was outvoted. It wasn't that far from where we turned off at Almaden. There were no restrictions on using unpaved roads with the vehicle we rented - that's why we rented it. The rental company was Hertz.

    We left Mareeba between 10 and 11 AM, stopped for lunch at Dimbulah for roughly an hour, and arrived in Undara around 4 PM.

    If I were you, I'd drive out to Chillagoe, spend a night there, tour the town and caves in the AM, then drive to Undara in the afternoon via the Ootan Rd. Then return to the Atherton Tablelands and Cairns via the main road, which would be quite boring to drive back and forth. We thought the Ootan Rd was quite interesting in an odd sort of way.

    Time of year should be a major consideration in doing the route we did. Fortunately, the Wet had not yet started when we were there. Otherwise, I'm not sure that we could have done the Ootan Rd with its many stream crossings, even with our big 4WD. Best time would be the Dry Season, say July or August. Cooler and dry, pleasant for enjoying the walking tracks at Undara.

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    We may be driving with Alan then, so may not be an issue, but good to know about Hertz. We might want to ascend Mt. Lewis (i think that is the name)again and it would be good to have a car where it wouldn't be an issue to drive up. Although, it's been many years since we have been there and at the time it looked like they were improving the road a lot.

    Thanks Alan. Qantas will now let us buy tickets that far out so sometime this month we may buy tickets, and thus know more about our dates.

    Thanks Ralph, looking forward to more of your report.

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    We were up early the next day (Tuesday, Nov. 20) for a cooked breakfast and then, a 2-hour lava tube tour. [Guided tours are the only way to see the tubes. In peak season, multiple tours, including full day tours are available; when we were there, the only option was the 2-hour tour.] Matt, our guide, did an excellent job discussing the wildlife, the vegetation, the terrain and the formation of the lava tubes – all with a healthy dash of humor mixed in. We saw three different species in the kangaroo family – eastern grey kangaroos, euros and antilopine wallaroos – and we learned how to tell them apart by the shape of the ears: kangaroos have diamond shaped ears. It was starting as a very hot day so our descent into one of the massive lava tubes provided a relief from the hot environment outside. We walked deep into the cave (this one being easily accessible via wooden stairs and boardwalk) where Matt pointed out the evidence of lava flow and explained how the caves have filled in, collapsed, and eroded over time. He also provided tips on cave photography and gave us chance to take a picture using light painting technique.

    We left Undara mid-morning, and at Matt’s suggestion, took the nearby detour to the Kalkani crater, one of many volcanic features in the region. Although the girls were a little reluctant in the 100-degree heat, we all took the short, graded climb up to the perfectly circular crater rim, with limited views over the surrounding terrain and across the crater.

    Back in the air-conditioned atmosphere of our Prado, we struck out for the Ravenshoe, on the Atherton Tablelands, via the Gulf Developmental Rd. and the Kennedy Hwy. As opposed to the last time my wife and I had done this route in 1994, these roads were now fully paved the whole way. En route, we passed a massive 3-trailer road train, a fixture of travel in outback Australia. At Ravenshoe, which prides itself as “The Highest Town In Queensland”, we stopped at the visitor’s center for local maps and then at a café for a late lunch.

    Continuing on our way, the greenness of the Atherton Tablelands – green fields, and lush pockets of tropical rainforest – struck us after spending the last few days in brown scrubby savannah country. At our next stop, we took another short walk through rainforest to Dinner Falls and the Hypipamee Crater, an impressive steep-sided volcanic pipe, over 80 meters deep, partly filled with water.

    We reached our ultimate destination that day, the small town of Yungaburra, in mid-afternoon where we checked in to our B&B accommodation, the Allumbah Pocket Cottages. These were very spacious, nicely decorated and comfortable, just a short walk away from the shops, the restaurants and, most importantly ☺, the pub. After settling into our rooms, we took a walk along Peterson Creek, just down the road. This was very satisfying – we picked up a number of new birds along the way, and most notably, spotted a couple of platypuses in the creek, another Australian mammal “first” for our friends. Our timing was key as platypuses are most active in the early evening.

    We enjoyed a nice dinner that evening at Nick’s Swiss Italian Restaurant, next to the creek, then relaxed around the TV in the outdoor lounge area at the B&B. A Christmas tree set up in the lounge seemed out of place to us “Northern Hemispherers”.

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    Wednesday, Nov. 21 was our last full day in Queensland. After breakfast in our rooms, we headed east along the Gillies Hwy, then north through pretty farmland for the short walk to the enormous Cathedral Fig Tree on the edge of the Danbulla State Forest. Well worth a visit! On the return, we detoured to the Gillies Lookout, a hang gliding spot at the terminus of a rough dirt track through farmland and rainforest. There were no hang gliders that day so we had the lookout, and its great view, all to ourselves.

    After a petrol stop back in Yungaburra, we traveled south to the Nerada Tea Plantation, arriving for lunch after a few wrong turns. I didn’t have very high expectations based on vague memories of a visit there with my wife in 1984. But this visit turned out to be a highlight of the trip. For one, I’d forgotten what a beautiful location it has with panoramic views east over an expanse of green tea fields to Mt Bellenden Ker, the highest mountain in Queensland. Lunch was excellent – absolutely delicious fresh sandwiches. The ladies in the café were very sweet and, for a nominal fee, one of them (a Chinese lady) gave us an interesting tour of the tea processing plant. But the best part, and most the most surprising part, was our chance sighting of Lumholtz tree kangaroos in the trees just outside the café. Just as we arrived, the Chinese lady came running out to us, very excited to point out the cute animals perched up a few meters up in the branches. I think there were four adults and at least one of them was a female with a joey peaking out of the pouch. This was the first time any of us had seen these exotic, endangered animals in the wild.

    On the way back to Yungaburra we stopped for a bird spotting walk part way around Lake Eacham, one of the volcanic lakes on the Atherton Tablelands and a popular spot for swimming. In Yungaburra we strolled around town eventually settling down for a couple of brews on the patio of the nice old Lake Eacham Hotel, a classic Australian pub. Here we considered dinner options eventually deciding on takeaway pizza from Nick’s down the road. While waiting for our pizza, Laurenzo and I took a walk along the field beside the restaurant. Here a steady stream of fruit bats flew northward above us, silhouetted against an orange sky. Then it was pizza in the comfort of the outdoor common area of the Allumbah Pocket Cottages.

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    Finally putting the finishing touch on the trip report that I began back in December!

    On our last day in Queensland we had plenty of time to get to Cairns from Yungaburra for our late afternoon flight back to Sydney. Thus, before leaving Yungaburra, we had time for shopping at the Gem Gallery where our friends bought some opals as Christmas gifts. The gentlemen there were very friendly, knowledgeable and helpful.

    Our goal this last day was to try to spot a cassowary to add to Laurenzo's final bird list. We had heard of recent sightings on the coast at Etty bay, south of Cairns, and so we headed in that direction. We made a brief stop at Millaa Millaa Falls en route - a very pretty place, but unfortunately not a lot of water was flowing. Then, ears popping, we descended to the coast along the Palmerston Hwy to Innisfail and Etty Bay. Etty Bay is a small settlement surrounded by rainforest and a gorgeous beach. Talking to people at the store opposite the beach, we heard that there had been a cassowary sighting on the access road less than an hour previously. Luck was not on our side, however. After walking up and down the beach and driving back and forth along the access road a few times, no cassowary ever graced us with his/her presence. Thus Laurenzo's Australian bird list ended at 173 species, exceeding his goal (his African count) by ten.

    We grabbed lunch at Innisfail and then drove north to Cairns, arriving in plenty of time to drop off our vehicle and catch our flight. On the outskirts of Cairns I couldn't help but notice construction of new roads and overpasses, new shopping centers, auto dealerships, etc. etc. - a far cry from the time we first visited Cairns in 1984 when there was literally just one traffic light in town!

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    Thanks for giving the link to this, Ralph.

    we are grappling with the Queensland part of our first trip to OZ and NZ in November & December '13; we have 5 nights between arriving in Brisbane and the beginning of the 1st Test Match to get to the GBR and find some diving for DH. so far, I have booked an apartment in Port Douglas for 5 nights as a back-stop [the Rendezvous Reef resort] but I haven't got much further than that.

    any ideas you can give me will be most gratefully received. Port Douglas looks like a pretty good base both for diving and exploring, but I'm open to other suggestions.

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    OMgosh, Ralph, we meet again on the Fodor's Australian forum! You gave wonderful advice for our 2007 trip to Australia and here you are with another GREAT trip report. Great writing style and so wonderful to revisit places we went and to learn of new places with your report. We hope to go to the GOR and Grampians in 2015, so your report of that area was very, very helpful. I am wondering if a loop such as you did and then flying to Adelaide would be better than driving to Adelaide with a rental car drop off? We are thinking of going to Wilpena Pound from Adelaide after the Claire and Barossa valleys. Still not sure about FMQ for this trip since we have been twice (including Cooktown, although not on the coast road like you did). Did you know that Willie's company is closed for now since his business partner had to go back to the UK to take care of her elderly mother? I got an email from them stating that with the hopes that Willie can continue doing the tours with another person/company. We can't go to Australia and not snorkel, though, so we might get to FNQ somewhere--have to have another shot at seeing a cassowary!! We went to that same place south of Cairns with equally bad luck, but it was a pleasant drive nonetheless. Maybe Mission Beach next time???

    Thanks for a GREAT trip report and hi again to you, Toucan, Alan, and the other regulars from the past. This forum was my "home" for our 2004 trip and the 2007 one as well. Glad to see that so many people still hang around.
    Sally in Seattle aka SnR

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    annhig - of course it depends on your interests, but 5 nights in PD seems a little long to me. Maybe split your time with a couple of nights on the Atherton Tablelands? PD is nice, but it's very touristy, hardly typically Australian.

    Sally - great to hear from you! Glad you enjoyed my report - it was a wonderful trip! We grappled with the same dilemma you mention about continuing on the GOR to Adelaide. In our case, we decided to loop back to Melbourne because of limited time (not enough to show our friends around the Adelaide area) - plus we wanted to see the Grampians, which we had not seen before. I think it depends on how much you like to drive - backtracking to Melbourne is not as far, but you'll have to deal with dropping off the car, waiting for a flight etc, etc, then picking up a car at the other end. By that time, you wouldn't be that much further ahead of where you'd be had you just continued along the GOR.

    Happy planning for 2015!..always willing to lend advice... Ralph

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