‘I felt I had Queens­land all to my­self’

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - AUSTRALIA -

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

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