Published in Wanderlust

THE LONG WAY ROUND

Queensland, Australia

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“Turn left, follow the path down to the river and you should find them in the second pool along the boardwalk.” For a moment I stared at the national park ranger waiting for his face to break into a smile; waiting for a quip along the lines of “Just joking mate, you’d be lucky to see one” or “You should have been here three months ago…” I wanted him to shake his head, whistle theatrically through clenched teeth and suggest a hike – lasting at least a day – that would plunge me into some of Queensland’s toughest bush.

Instead, my quest for a wild duck-billed platypus had been ruthlessly curtailed into a step-by-step guide. I’ve had hazier directions to international airports. 

 

Feeling slightly ridiculous wearing hiking boots and shouldering a backpack containing energy snacks, I left the visitor centre at Broken River in Eungella National Park and followed the ranger’s instructions. A pair of kookaburras cackled hysterically from a nearby ghost gum as I clomped along the boardwalk (refusing to hold the handrail as if that might, in some way, lend a certain pioneering edge to the venture). 

 

When I reached the second pool, I felt a small frisson of excitement. The water’s surface was smooth and flawless, like green satin unfurled beneath the riverside trees. There was no sign of life: no ripples or telltale trail of bubbles, no ‘plop’ of a diving platypus. Perhaps this wasn’t going to be so easy after all… 

 

But suddenly there they were. Not one, but two of Australia’s most enigmatic and elusive creatures floating a few feet from where I stood. The first thing that struck me was how small the platypuses were – just 30 or 40cm in length. At first glance it looked like someone had chucked a pair of old brown slippers into the river. Then the fun began. No sooner had I swung my binoculars onto a platypus than it would duck-dive underwater, kicking frantically with webbed feet and wriggling its bill from side to side in an ungainly descent to the murky depths of the river. You never knew where it might pop up next. 

 

A few days earlier I had waited with baited breath each time humpback whales performed a similar vanishing trick in the waters of Hervey Bay. My journey north from Brisbane had been chokka with classic Queensland treats: surfing the Sunshine Coast, 4x4 driving on Fraser Island and a jaunt to Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef. Finding Nemo and a bunch of humpback whales had been easy. By the time I reached Mackay and realized that I needed to start heading back to Brissie, I decided to shun the ‘default’ coastal route in favour of a more convoluted inland loop rich with the promise of duck-billed platypuses, echidnas, sugar gliders, and other weird, wonderful – and supposedly evasive – Aussie critters.

 

To be honest, the alternative of backtracking along the Bruce Highway wasn’t exactly tempting. There are sections of this road that are so long and mind-numbingly relentless that the highways department has resorted to putting up road signs designed to keep drivers focused – and awake. ‘No kids, you are not nearly there yet,’ japed one, while others posted a trivia question (‘What is Queensland’s national flower?’) with the answer 15km later (‘Cooktown orchid’).

 

The inland route back to Brisbane also had the advantage of joining the dots between some of Queensland’s lesser-known national parks – including Eungella – home of the platypus – just 80km beyond the suburbs of Mackay.

 

To reach Eungella (pronounced ‘young-g-lah’), I drove west, burrowing into the sugarcane farming country of Pioneer Valley. It was harvest time: huge ‘cane crushers’ roved the fields chewing up the crop. Hawks and kites wheeled overhead, swooping on hapless insects and lizards flushed out by the advancing machines; kookaburras squatted on telephone wires, heads bowed as they scanned the ground for prey, while large flocks of white egrets and cockatoos rose and fell above the sugarcane stubble like loose laundry. This was harvesting on an industrial scale. There was even a narrow-gauge railway laid out amongst the fields. Small electric locos hauled long trains of wagons piled high with sugarcane destined for local mills.

 

I stopped at Pinnacle Pub, a local watering hole renowned for its pie and chips. It was hot – despite being a winter’s day in mid-August – so I sat outside on the covered verandah. A cane harvester devoured a field nearby, filling the air with mulch. I spent several minutes picking the fallout from my mushy peas until a farm worker rolled up in a battered Land Cruiser. His hair and clothes were so full of sugarcane debris that it seemed overly fastidious to fuss over a bit of extra fibre in my food. We exchanged ‘G’days’ and I crunched through the rest of my lunch before driving on towards Eungella.

 

Sugarcane monoculture gave way to subtropical mayhem as I entered the Finch Hatton Gorge section of the national park. Named after Henry Finch-Hatton, a farmer and gold miner who settled in the region during the late 1800s, Finch Hatton Gorge is the antithesis to Pioneer Valley’s farmland. Rainforest trees, palms and ferns drew a green veil behind me as I drove deeper into the park, fording several tea-coloured creeks before the gravel track was finally snuffed out by a wall of vegetation.

 

Eungella National Park protects one of Australia’s longest stretches of rainforest. Numerous walking trails probe this leafy wilderness, but none are more rewarding than the 2.8km Araluen Falls track at Finch Hatton Gorge. In just a few strides I was completely enshrouded in a muted arboreal cocoon. The techno whip-crack call of an eastern whipbird sounded from a palm-choked ravine to my left, while brush-turkeys sifted leaf litter on the shadowy forest floor. The trail climbed gently for half an hour, weaving between moss-fuzzed boulders before reaching a lookout above the waterfall. It’s the large clear pool beneath Araluen Falls, however, that lures most hikers there. Wild swimming doesn’t get much better than slipping into the cooling waters of a rainforest rock pool deep in platypus country, floating on your back and gazing up at the jungle canopy.

 

Exploring more of Eungella National Park, driving high into the Clark Range and staking out the tranquil pools at Broken River, I decided that it couldn’t be a bad life being a duck-billed platypus.

As for kangaroos, they seemed to have a much tougher time. Heading southwest on the seven-hour drive between Eungella and my next destination – Carnarvon National Park – you couldn’t fail to notice the roadkill on the Peak Downs Highway. I shuddered each time a road train – one of the Outback’s ubiquitous triple-trailer trucks – thundered past, its ‘roo fender’ gleaming defiantly at the business end of 200 tonnes of steel and testosterone. No wonder the kangaroo corpses were all decapitated. This was Skippy meets Mad Max in the most brutal and literal sense.

At 270km, the Peak Downs Highway links Mackay with the mining community of Clermont. The sugarcane trains of Pioneer Valley looked straight out of a children’s toy chest compared to the mile-long chains of coal wagons, each one hauled by three straining locos, that I now passed. 

 

Eungella seemed like a distant oasis. Dense subtropical rainforest had long been replaced by scant eucalypt woodland. A heat mirage jellified the road ahead; clouds piled themselves in serried ranks across the huge dome of cobalt-blue sky, while the earth began to take on the rusted look of the Outback. Approaching Clermont I was jarred from the mesmerizing monotony of the arid plains by the Peak Range – a cluster of 30-million-year-old volcanic plugs, including 572m-high Wolfgang Peak, jutting above the gum trees like a worn tooth, half decayed and forgotten. 

 

I pushed on south towards Emerald, stopping to refuel the car and grab another bottle of iced coffee – staple drink for the long-distance driver in Australia. “Try not to arrive after dusk,” the garage attendant told me. “There are lots of ‘roos around when you get near Carnarvon.”

Turning off the A7 Carnarvon Highway, with 40km of gravel track to go before reaching the national park, sunset was swamped by a colossal thunderstorm. Rain machine-gunned the windscreen as lightning flared across the clouds slumped over the tablelands ahead. The thunder was so loud I could hear it above the slosh of wet gravel beneath the car’s wheels. Peering through the deluge, I tried to focus on the road. Without warning, a kangaroo bounded out of long grass to my left. I yanked the steering wheel, felt a thud and glanced in the rear-view mirror to see the myopic macropod nose-plant in the road, push itself upright then totter away.

 

When I finally arrived at the park’s Takarakka Bush Resort, the sodden wallabies were a sorry sight. Dozens of them loitered around the tents and cabins as if waiting for a chance to nip inside out of the rain. 

 

“It’s beautiful when it’s raining – it brings out the colours, and the wildlife.” Nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of my bushwalking guide, Phil Porter, the following morning as we set off through light drizzle towards Carnarvon Gorge.

 

We followed a sandy trail beneath spotted gums, their trunks glistening blue and grey, like molten wax. Raindrops sparkled in yellow wattle flowers and clung to the fur of whiptail wallabies browsing nearby. Phil pointed out king ferns and cycads – living relics from the time of the dinosaurs – and explained how the sandstone now exposed in the 200m-high cliffs of Carnarvon Gorge was deposited in a huge river delta during the Jurassic Period. 

 

Like Eungella, Carnarvon is an oasis in the semi-arid heart of Central Queensland. The 160km2 gorge section of the vast wilderness park is not only a refuge for rare plants and indigenous wildlife, but it is also a sacred, spiritual place. Our 10km hike through the gorge followed in the footsteps of the Bidjara and Karingbal people. Carbon dating of campfire charcoal deposits on the floor of Cathedral Cave – one of the key sites on the gorge trail – has revealed that Aborigines have visited this place for over 3,500 years. Their rock art adorns the walls of the towering wind-eroded overhang – a head-spinning montage of hands, boomerangs and nets stenciled in yellow and red ochre. 

 

Even more spectacular is the 62m-long Art Gallery where over 2,000 engravings, ochre stencils and freehand paintings record generations of ceremonies and gatherings. Phil teased out some of the gems from this artistic treasure – evil spirits, fertility symbols, weapons, a clutch of emu eggs, a sand goanna scurrying across the rock face… Much of the art, he told me, related to Mundagurra, a creation ancestor who lay dormant underground, her belly full of all the animals, ready to burst open and populate the land.

 

As we retraced our steps back through the gorge, crossing and recrossing Carnarvon Creek over 30 times, we glimpsed some of Mundagurra’s progeny. Swamp wallabies and eastern grey kangaroos foraged beneath Carnarvon fan palms, their flouncy fronds unfurling above tall, straight trunks. Pied currawongs, parrots and cockatoos circled around the natural amphitheatre of the gorge, and we even spotted an echidna bumbling along the forest floor, poking its snout under bits of wood on a quest for ants.

 

I could easily have spent a week or more in Carnarvon, wildlife watching, walking and winding down, but after three nights the road to Brisbane beckoned. A quick glance at my map, however, revealed at least one green blob between Carnarvon and the city. Unfortunately, the drive to Bunya Mountains National Park was a washout: seven hours of torrential rain, endless cattle country and little more than a KFC or Subway in every drive-through town. I stopped briefly in Roma to visit The Big Rig, but I couldn’t get fired up about a visitor centre celebrating Australia’s oil and gas industry. My mind was still wandering Carnarvon Gorge, delving into the Aboriginal Dreamtime.

 

When the Bunya Mountains ghosted out of the clouds ahead, it was almost a relief to drive into thick forest, burrowing once more into a subtropical tangle of trees and ferns. 

 

It suddenly dawned on me that I had been travelling in Queensland for over a week without so much as a glimpse of the coast. Driving the long way back to Brisbane had involved a protracted, occasionally monotonous, road journey, but it had shown me there was much to discover beyond the Bruce Highway.

 

Driving on through the riot of Bunya’s hoop pines, red cedars and strangler figs, my thoughts turned to possible wildlife sightings. King parrots and red-necked wallabies shouldn’t be difficult. But what I really wanted to see was a sugar glider – that exquisite little marsupial with a knack for flying through the forest. Perhaps the national park warden would have a few tips on where to find one…