‘I felt I had Queensland all to myself’
Simon Parker goes up – and down – to get close to Australia’s inspiring wild side
The parched scrub crunched underfoot as dozens of yellowwinged grasshoppers flitted between peeling eucalyptus trunks, while a pair of raucous white cockatoos bounced noisily among the branches of a jacaranda tree. From here to the horizon, waist-high wisps of khaki grass swayed in the breeze, creating a rustling carpet.
“Stay on the track,” said my guide, Mick, from under his mandatory wide-brimmed leather hat. “There are taipans and eastern browns in there.” As he curled his index and middle fingers into the shape of snake fangs, my bare ankles had never felt so exposed.
Some 125 miles west of Cairns, on the outskirts of the sprawling but sparsely populated outback town of Chillagoe, we were entering the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park. Above ground, the area resembles a golden savannah studded with thousands of knee-high termite mounds, but as I descended below its surface on a steep metal ladder, I entered a different world. Cool and dimly lit, it gave me goosebumps.
“These caves have their very own ecosystem,” said Mick, as a skittish sheath-tailed bat, weighing just half an ounce, zoomed through the limestone tunnel like a tiny bullet train. “The bats’ guano provides food for the cockroaches and insects, and they in turn become prey for spotted pythons. All the animals are slightly smaller in here than out there. They’ve adapted to this environment and there is nowhere like it in Australia.”
Formed from ancient coral reefs 400 million years ago, these caves (400 of them mapped, with hundreds more uncharted) are a little-heralded alternative to the Great Barrier Reef that attracts the vast majority of Queensland’s 850,000 visitors per year. A handful of the most visually impressive caves can be explored by tourists, accompanied by a local guide.
In summer, this region of North Queensland swelters in temperatures of 40C-plus, but 250ft below the pearly limestone surface the mercury rarely rises above 23C. Away from the stifling heat, subterranean animals are more energetic than their relatives above ground. Agile Australian swiftlets darted among the mineralrich stalactites while twitchy huntsman spiders the size of side plates clung to the refrigerated surface of the cave, patiently awaiting a tasty passing invertebrate.
As I drove from Chillagoe, pushing deeper into the outback along powdery tracks the colour and consistency of ground turmeric, it felt like I had Queensland’s 715 million square miles to myself. A 90-minute drive south lies the 85,000-acre Crystalbrook estate. As my 4x4 shuddered along its rust-coloured main thoroughfare, a pair of whistling kites soared high above against a matt sapphire sky. Here, one of Australia’s little-known luxury bolt-holes clings to the side of a 300-acre freshwater lake that provides an outback oasis for fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds.
Surrounded by eucalyptus trees and myriad species of migrating wildfowl, Crystalbrooky Lodge feels more like an African safari retreat than it does an Australi Australian guesthouse. From the infinity pool overlooking the lake, guests c can spy Albert, a docile 6ft-long freshwa freshwater crocodile. As dusk falls, the cackling of kookaburras and the warblin warbling of butcher-birds rises to a crescen crescendo. If you’re lucky, you might see one of a pair of white-bellied sea eagles d divebomb an unsuspecting black b bream and carry it off.
To th the west, Australia’s scorched landsc landscape continues for 400 foreb foreboding miles before reaching the G Gulf of Carpentaria. To the east east, however, a band of rainforest ski skirts the coastline, creating a fe fertile belt of tropical pastures w where mangoes, avocados and bananas grow alongside huge plantations of coffee and sugar cane.
Fifty miles south-west of Cairns, at Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat, I watched a rowdy mob of more than 200 rainbow lorikeets swarm in the canopy at sunset. From the vantage point of my very own tree house, I could make out Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland’s tallest mountain.
Here, the thick undergrowth provides shelter for one of the planet’s smallest marsupials, the musky rat kangaroo, while the creek plays host to a family of platypuses. When I came face to face with a wild cassowary – a flightless bird, 6ft tall and weighing 60kg – I scampered like a petrified
A hot-air balloon drifts over remote North Queensland, above; the rainbow lorikeet, below, and Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park, left
The infinity pool at Crystalbrook Lodge, above