TRIPPING OUT

The best thing about the RV lifestyle is meeting people – and being able to share experiences with them as you explore OZ

WORDS BY JANNE HARDY, PHOTOGRAPHY BY JANNE AND GEOFF HARDY

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While camping at Mareeba, three quarters of an hour west of Cairns, we were delighted to meet up again with some old friends – fellow RVers Frank and Sandra, whom we’d met in the same spot three years before. To celebrate, we decided to do some day trips together. It was a good move.

Frank suggested a great spot for starters. “It’s got living fossils and carnivorous plants,” he said, “as well as reptiles lurking, plants that kill other plants and a bit of culture thrown in!”

Well that got us in. We couldn’t guess what he had in mind and he wouldn’t tell us. Following his directions, we drove to Cairns down the Kuranda Range and ended up in the city in a dark and shaded road enveloped by some of the biggest trees I’ve seen. They were dripping in rainforest growth and festooned with parasitic appendages. It was cool and deep and green. It was the Cairns Botanic Gardens.

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We were glad we’d left the vans up on the tablelands, as the drive down was steep and busy. Taking day trips from a well priced, quiet and secure base is not a bad way to go. We parked in the shade and began our adventure.

THE CAIRNS BOTANIC GARDENS

The gardens are well signposted with information at every turn. We saw waterlily ponds with leaves almost big enough to hold a person, and palms of every kind waving in the slight breeze: Fan Palms, Mangrove Palms and ‘ouchy’ Wait A While Palms. The latter tend to grab passers-by with the snaggly spikes covering their stems! Massive spikes of vivid orchid flowers did battle with the shadows cast by towering rainforest trees.

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Frank then led us to the spot where we could see the scary plants that eat insects. “If something grabs you from the garden here, call out,” he said, “and we’ll rescue you!” These things had teeth like the bars of a jail, camouflaged by colours designed to lure their prey. Disembodied legs were dangling uneaten from their sticky mouths, while other innocent creatures were crawling to their doom. “Isn’t it great?” Frank said, relishing the gore and destruction as Sandra and I looked around disbelievingly.

This place, we decided, had a Daintree feel about it: we discovered plants we’d already seen in other tropical areas. There were plants growing on plants, such as bromeliads clambering over each other to scale the trunks of trees. We saw epiphytes, harmless to their hosts – unlike the murderous strangling figs that we found devouring a whole wall at the entrance to The Tanks cultural centre in the gardens precinct! These WWII fuel tanks were built in the shadow of Mt Whitfield and now they host art exhibitions, plays and concerts as well as the visitors centre. The walls of the info centre and cafe are mirrored, reflecting the enveloping greenery.

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It proved to be a great way to spend a day – and it was twice as enjoyable with good company. This is why we like our life on the road. It’s not just about the places you see. To us, it’s more about the people we meet.

“They have crocodiles in here from time to time,” Sandra said as we tackled the Centenary Lakes part of the gardens with a fresh water lake and a saltwater section. A wheelchair-friendly boardwalk winds through massive paper barks hundreds of years old and giant native bamboo towers beside the water. Here, the nearly extinct Layered Tassel Fern lurks and tiny, vivid wrens flit in the shadows.

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The Gingers in the Botanic gardens have flowers the size of a human head; some as long as a human leg. Heliconias, bright and delicate, hung high above our heads and over 100 different types of ferns waved us by, their curled and furry new fronds dropping hairs in the wind as flocks of red and yellow butterflies sailed through the gloom. This is a delightfully cool place to spend a hot day, with beauty at every turn.

In Gondwana Land Frank held up a tree so that we could pass underneath. Here amongst the ancient Cycads it is dinosaur country and we could feel their ghosts around, eating the prehistoric plants that dwarfed us, garlands of rainforest flowers hanging from their massive jaws. Weird, waving blobby seeds dropped to the ground. The Cycads have been around for 240 million years (nearly as long as me! I felt at home.) It was everything Frank and Sandra had promised. And a perfect day trip from our Mareeba base.

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We enjoyed an enormous lunch and headed for home. As we drove back to our vans we decided to visit Mossman, but we opted to wait until the weather was just right. That’s another benefit of basing yourself in one place and branching out with day trips. You don’t have to see everything at once. Wait til the weather’s right and off you go!

MESMERISING MOSSMAN

We set off on an hour and a quarter’s scenic drive to tropical Mossman and its famous gorge and we also found our next camping base – but more of that later.

The road is excellent all the way with the last section rather winding and steep, as are all the descents to the coast from the Atherton Tablelands, but it’s fine for RVs. Just take it easy.

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Half an hour north of Mareeba past lakes and green, green grass and scrub country, you enter the mining town of Mt Molloy where the Old Bakery Department Store sells everything from yesteryear. The lovely old Queensland Pub sells great hamburgers.

Just a short stroll north of town is a popular shady 48-hour free camp with good toilets and a dump point, right beside the running creek.

We headed towards the coast through waving elephant grass, rolling pastures and stands of rainforest trees. Cane fields and cane trains were everywhere. B&Bs and private caravan parks nestle in lush rolling hills, backed to the north by rugged mountains. There is one van park in town and another outside, with fruit stalls along the road.

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Just east of the tiny settlement is the coast, which we saw from a perch in the clouds. The town of Mossman and coastal towns of Newell and Wonga Beach towards Cape Kimberley were laid out like a map, where the green of the cane fields and forests met the blue of the sea. It was pretty special.

Put ‘er in low and down you go! The steep road looked weird on the GPS: a wiggly, winding red line snaking back and forth across the mountainside. We saw a huge Ulysses butterfly drifting by in vivid shades of blue and black, and you’re also likely to spot Swallowtail and Birdwing butterflies up here.

Across the low lands you’ll find Mossman and the Mossman River, discovered during a search for a goldfields port in 1873. This was a cedar cutters’ paradise until they cut it all down. Happily, enough was left for the establishment of the reserve in 1916, which became Daintree National Park and the biggest tropical rainforest still in existence in Australia.

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Mossman is about 20 minutes north of Port Douglas and 80km north of Cairns. Including stops, the journey took us one and a quarter hours from Mareeba. Frank and Sandra pointed out The Bluff with its steep rocky face and Mt Demi and its two peaks, towering high over the cloud forests below.

We drove through Mossman to check out Wonga Beach 16km north. We’d heard that the caravan park there was magical – and that’s where we found our next base from which we will explore the Daintree. The van park is right behind the beach in deep, deep shade and as the council van parks from Palm Cove north are priced the same, its position was the decider. The van park in Mossman is good too. It’s the same price and attached to the local swimming pool where entry is free to campers. Be warned, though: the beaches attract both crocodiles and stingers in season.

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Having found a good potential base in Wonga Beach, we headed back to Mossman and out to the Gorge. It was not possible to get written information on the gorge except for a tour brochure but after we paid for our 2km bus ride to the gorge from the visitors centre, the signage was excellent.

Towering mountainsides catch the moisture from the sea and direct it towards the forest below – it’s cool and lush and gorgeous. Waterfalls and creeks tumble; trees drip and the river beckons… but Frank and Sandra warned us about the danger of swimming among the boulders of the river. The water rushes and feet get caught – you can imagine the terror. But there are safe swimming areas with good paths, so we headed there along the Baral Marrjanga track. This wheelchair-friendly path winds above the forest floor, where you can view all kinds of things that the rainforest has to offer: Strangler Figs, glistening moss, fish, birds and turtles, as well as the Boyd’s Forest Dragon that eyed us from his perch up a towering tree!

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Five to ten minutes later, depending on how long you stop to view the rushing streams below and the Birds Nest Ferns and avian life above, you are delivered to the swimming hole. As you walk up the slight incline the river roars by to your right.

There are several tracks to choose from to explore the area. Some wind through forest country, some meander along beside the rushing waters of various streams. They are all moderate to easy. The indigenous tours include the dreamtime and bush plants tours, where you’ll learn about things like the plant that acts as a natural soap. Because of Mossman’s proximity to Cairns there are lots of tourists, but the forest swallows them all up and they are never intrusive.

Welcome to the joys of life as a nomad and remember: it’s the people you meet that make life on the road so special!

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