It’s been almost a month since my last entry. Since Becky’s departure almost three weeks ago, I’ve been pretty much keeping my nose to the grindstone, finishing up case studies, writing speeches for my time in New Zealand, and occasionally taking an hour or so to enjoy the simple joys of living in this place before leaving on January 2. I wanted to get down some impressions of places Becky and I visited at the beginning of December, as well as some of what I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks.
During Becky’s second week in Cairns, we took a three-day trip to Mareeba, Chillagoe, Eacham Lake and Atherton, coming down off Tablelands on the Palmerton Highway. The trip to Chillagoe took us into the dry tropics about 100 miles west of Cairns. What’s amazing is how quickly the landscape changes after getting up onto the Tablelands. The vegetation around Kuranda is all lush tropical forest or grasslands and farms. Ten miles further to the west, the vegetation is eucalypt trees with little understory in the forest. Around Mareeba, another 20 or so miles to the west, the land is heavily cultivated with farms of sugar cane, bananas, coffee, and mangos. Past Mareeba, it becomes greener (thanks to the rain in November), with shorter scrubbier forests—again eucalypt and acacia (I think). The closer we got to Chillagoe, the sparser the vegetation became and the redder the soil. At Chillagoe, there’s a sign to Normanton, on the other side of the peninsula on the Gulf of Carpenteria. The sign says last gas for 560 kilometers.
Chillagoe, itself, is like many small towns in Eastern Oregon or Washington. A service station, a post office, a couple of restaurants, and a few hotels. It was the site of a major copper mine in the mid-20th century and the home to several thousand miners and workers in the smelting factory. All that remains of that former industrial glory are the chimneys and debris from the smelter. In ways, it is like the gutted factories in Detroit—but here the factories are in the middle of a vast, dry landscape.
It’s also home to people who love it. We ate dinner at the one restaurant that was open when we went looking. Dinner was served between 6:30-7:30. A small group of townspeople had gathered around the restaurant’s bar. When we shared our name with the waitress who took our order, a woman sitting nearby said that Becky is one of her favorite names because that’s what her daughter is called. She began describing this sixteen-year-old who is an up and coming country song writer and singer. She showed us a scrapbook of clippings that’s kept in the restaurant recording news of anyone in Chillagoe. Several were about her Becky. She later played a DVD of her daughter performing at a contest in Brisbane earlier in the year. She was good. And everyone around us listened appreciatively. The place reminded me of a restaurant where Becky, Brian Fry, and I ate Thanksgiving dinner one year when we were at John Woolman School. We had driven down to Washington, California deep in the gorge of the Yuba River. We discovered that we could order dinner there and share in a community potluck. We spent our Thanksgiving with strangers who for the couple hours we were there became adopted family. It felt like that in Chillagoe.
Chillagoe’s other claims to fame are its limestone karsts (cliffs that rise precipitously from the otherwise flat plain), its limestone caves, and its marble. We clambered around one of the karsts and found the balancing rock—a huge boulder that sits on one narrow end–and the next morning walked through one of the caves led by a local Aboriginal man who had grown up in the area and played in the caves when he was a boy before they had been transformed into a park and tourist attraction. We were his only guests the morning we accompanied him for an hour through a collection of stalactites and stalagmites that rivals the Oregon Caves.
The night we spent in Chillagoe was hot—hotter even than Cairns. Before we bedded down, we lay on some chaise longues by a small observatory that operates during the tourist season but not in December. We wanted to see the stars unobstructed by city lights. The sky wasn’t as clear and brilliant as it had been in Dubbo when I was there in September, but it was still possible for Becky to get a sense of how vast it can seem in the interior of Australia. While we were looking, a bank of clouds started moving across the sky from the east eventually covering nearly all of the stars we had earlier been watching. I could imagine what it would have been like to observe this vista night after night after night as an Aboriginal person and the impact this might have on how I saw the world.
After visiting the cave the next morning, we took a dip in a local swimming hole before heading to Lake Eacham and Atherton. The hole was in a limestone formation just beneath a small waterfall. That was our first swim for the day. Our second was in Lake Eacham four hours to the east in the Tablelands. I had been here in October with Bob Stevenson and his physical therapist, Bulkie. There were fewer people on a Friday than on the Sunday when I’d been there before, but it was still a popular spot. We swam for many minutes in the clear, warm water that fills this volcanic crater—formed at about the same time as our own Crater Lake.
Cooled off, we drove to the holiday park we stayed at south of Atherton. This section of Australia is green, rolling hills with alternating forest and meadows. It’s cooler than the interior and the coastal plain, and if I were to move to Australia, it’s the place I think I’d choose to settle down. That evening, we spent an hour or so next to a small creek close to our cabin. We hoped to see a platypus—they were said to make appearances here regularly. We saw some turtles and ducks, but no platypuses. They proved to be as elusive as cassowaries, Australia’s largest flightless bird—something that we looked for every time we drove through rainforests.
The next morning, we were much luckier with wildlife sightings. About a mile from the place we stayed was Hasties Pond, a sizable wetlands with a huge number of water fowl. A two-story blind is located on the east side of the pond. It has benches, so it was easy to spend the two hours just after dawn watching birds. We identified over twenty and became familiar enough with them that after a while we knew what we were looking at just because of the way they swam around. I realized that this is what I need to do in the spring out at Sauvie Island—bring something to sit on and just observe for a long time.
Later that morning, we drove to Millaa Millaa to check out the waterfall route. There are what seem to be dozens of waterfalls in this region—and we stopped at three of them.
We finished the trip by hitting the Bruce Highway, stopping for what was probably the worst lunch I’ve ever had in Innisfail (a chicken sandwich with diced canned chicken and catsup), and then a trip to Yarrabah, an Aboriginal community to the southeast of Cairns. I’d somehow gotten the impression that tourists were welcome in Yarrabah and that there were places to visit. After a harrowing drive up and down one of the steepest roads I’ve ever seen, we found Yarrabah to be virtually lacking in any form of commerce (with the exception of one small grocery store). The community had originally been used as a prison for Aboriginal people who didn’t comply with EuroAustralian regulations. It seemed amazingly distant from Cairns while being no more than about 40 miles away.