(Water) Falling for Atherton

Into the Atherton tablelands we tumble, the fruit bowl of northern Queensland. Rolling green hills spring up around us as we tour local waterfalls, townships, scenic lookouts, and the rambling roads that twist and turn through orchards, fields and paddocks.

The amazingly picturesque Milla Milla lookout. The kids insist on "mooning" for the camera, which does detract somewhat from the view, before finally obliging us with a fully-dressed pose.
First waterfall for the day.
Second waterfall for the day. Kids can be seen clambouring on the rocks.
Third waterfall for the day. This one, the widest in the state.

Undara erupts for us

The Undara Volcanic National Park shows, yet again, that just when we think we’ve done every cave experience possible … there’s still, amazingly, more. This time it’s the Undara Lava Tubes, giant caves with marshmallow like ceilings, water logged floors and shadow-like residue marking the walls, created 160,000 years ago when volcanic eruptions sent molten lava spewing along creek and river beds. We also walk the rim of a volcano crater, enjoy a return of the much loved campfire-marshmallow-guitar-combo, and rejoice in the friendliness of the local wildlife, greeting kangaroos as we traipse to the dunnies at dawn and dusk, and welcoming a potaroo (cute little possum-kanga-cross) to our table at night.

Rikki inside a lava tube arch.
Outside the entrance to a lava tube. The tubes are only accesible on guided tours, so we jump aboard a tour bus, a novelty in and of itself for us solo adventurers. Kids take it in turns to ride shotgun with the bus driver.
Kids run on ahead into the belly of a lava tube, in their parents' somewhat desperate -and altogether fruitless - attempt to keep their raucous behaviour under control as the rest of the tour group struggle to hear the ranger. 
Wall markings in a lava cave. Look closely and you'd swear you can see the Jolly Swagman, his jumbuck and the Troopers, one two three.
Budgie contemplating his next move. Potaroo contemplating hers.
Creating our own little volcano inspired heat. Eruptions invariably come later... in the caravan... 

What rhymes with Farters' Powers

The history of the Gold Rush era oozes out of the sidewalks in Charters Towers, where immaculately preserved historical buildings line the wide streets of the city centre that was once the largest in the state outside of Brisbane. We hire an audio driving CD and map that lets us drive our way around the town’s many treasures over the course of a morning – then we return again after lunch to explore the main street by foot. It is all supremely engaging, even more so with Budge the “Pop-Quiz-Master” firing off questions to test just how much we are taking in. (Jack scoops first prize for the day – aided, no doubt, by some shrewd note taking in the backseat). Charters Towers also boasts a pretty drive-in cinema, which we are oh so tempted to indulge in – but having driven another stretch of five plus hours to get here – during which no less than four DVD movies were screened – we decide that another car movie experience, however novel, would probably be overkill at this point.

Outside the reconstructed Poppet Head above a mine shaft, just one stop on our driving tour of the town and Pop-Quiz-A-Thon (where even Benji gets his own questions ala "What town are we in? We'll give you a clue: it rhymes with Farters Powers").
History is alive in the city centre, where the streets look almost like film sets.
Another city streetscape, this time with the Chamber of Commerce - one of the few regional stock exchanges in Australia and yet another reason why Charters Towers was affectionately known as "The World" during the gold boom, as in "the Towers has everything and there is no need to travel anywhere else".

Emerald City in the Land of Oz

We lure the children to Emerald with stories of bright green gems that will soon augment our collection – only to discover that the town is named after some “emerald coloured” mountains and the fossicking options are … nil. But there’s Australia’s Biggest Easel to see, some botanical gardens with hedge maze and train-track to play in, a man made lake to paddle in when we get, as Benji says, too “fweaty” – and some overdue home maintenance and elaborate bicycle repairs to attend to as well. Enough to keep us all out of mischief.

Benji turns a cartwheel beneath the Giant Easel, his favoured expression of spontaneous joy. Jack is inclined to skip, Rikki to sing out loud. It's our best indicator by far on whether an activity is a winner.
Jack and Benji on the pedal powered monorail at the Emerald Botanical Gardens.

Sapphire glows

In Sapphire we get to fossick again – but this time there is a welcome shortcut because we can buy a bucket of stones already excavated AND use a pulley device to help rinse them clean. There’s still plenty of work left in sorting through the rock for the elusive gems, but our hard toil pays off handsomely – we leave with a fistful of zircons and sapphires valued at approximately $700. Sapphire itself is a ramshackle outpost that has been divided up, patchwork like, into odd plots of land; everyone is digging for treasure and using every contraption imaginable to aid their efforts. It is a hoot, as is the neighbouring town of Rubyvale, which we pop into as well and find the hillbilly gem fields theme just as strong. But we’re not ones to scoff either when “thayars gold in thayem thayer hills” or near enough… so we don’t dare leave without one last fossick, on our own, out in the fields, sunstroke be damned.

Budgie and Rosella.
Rinsing our rocks using a Willoughby - infinitely easier on the back.
Sorting though our washed stones to pick out the gems.
Fossicking in the fields. "Needle in a haystack" is the phrase that springs to mind.

Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for takeover

At the Qantas Founders Museum in Longreach we are able to tour the outside of a retired Qantas 747 Jumbo jet and then climb on board for a fascinating sticky beak at the cargo hold, black box (which is, in fact, orange), passenger cabins (Economy, Business and First Class) and cock pit. It is a tour that undeniably raises the bar for all future museum experiences. It's also a tour that presents its own unique challenge when - after entering the cockpit first and before the rest of the tour participants - one young Bihary (who shall remain anonymous) lets slip a "silent but deadly".  Obviously after months of travelling in a tin can, we're unfazed and can can still snap our photos, beaming broadly. Not sure whether the same can be said for those innocent folk who entered after us.

Biharys waiting to board.
Beneath the belly of the beast.
Inside the $10 million engine, blades safely behind perspex.
Caution! Children in Cockpit.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain, Darren  Bihary, speaking...
Right after we enter the toxic cockpit. Kids are engaged and non-plussed whilst dad pulls on an oxygen mask and struggles for air. 


Longreach offers two terrific museum experiences - the Stockmans Hall of Fame and the Qantas Founders Museum (Qantas was conceived in Cloncurry, born in Winton and based in Longreach). We soon realise that our plans to tackle both are too ambitious so we ditch the Hall of Fame for the plane... but not before enjoying a Bushmans' Show.

Rikki, rapt, watching a cockatoo on rollerskates at the Wildlife Show we happen upon at our Longreach caravan park.
Great statue outside the Stockmans Museum. We're told the exhibition inside is just as great, but with three raucous kids whose attention spans seem to be shrinking the more long car trips we do back to back, we cut our losses this time and give it a miss.
At the Bushman's Show at the Stockmans Museum, where Budge does us proud by volunteering to participate in an audience-quiz... and not so proud by coming in second.

Waltzin' Winton

Winton is an little dynamo of a destination that has worked out how to milk every ounce of it's history and heritage.

There's the Waltzing Matilda Centre, the only attraction in the world dedicated to a song - and one that quite successfully demonstrates why that song has indeed become our unoffocial national anthem. The link? It was written and first performed in Winton by Banjo Patterson.
There's the Dinosaur Fossil Displays, which enlighten us to the fact that over a third of Australia's prehistoric fossils have come from the Winton area... including those of the mighty "Elliot", the largest dinosaur ever discovered in our country. There's the Royal Open Air Theatre Museum, which still plays Movietone news and silent features weekly, and has its own entry in the "Australia's largest.... Family": this time a giant deckchair. Most fun of all, there's Arno's Wall and the Musical Fence - two junk yard contraptions that are warmly embraced by the Bihary scavenger children. With the faint strains of Waltzing Matilda ringing in our ears, and the proud realisation that we can now, all of us, sing each and every verse, we head off to continue our journey through outback Queensland.

Arno's Wall is made from rock from Opalton and studded with a whole mixture of objects sourced from the local tip by its eccentric creator, including sewing machine, bicycles, cash register, car engines... and ofcourse, the kitchen sink!
The bins dotting the main street in Winton are giant dinosaur feet. No Kidding.  
Singing a few bars of Waltzing Matilda outside the museum.
Alongside the world's first musical fence is a playground of instruments that Oscar the Grouch would be proud of. The Musical Fence is itself a wire fence that is tuned to key and can be plucked, strung or bowed. 
In the shadows of the great dane of deckchairs.
Elliot Herschberg, we still miss you!!

Queensland Here We Come!

Two states and one territory down. Now, it’s onto Queensland!!! After crossing the border, we bed down in Camooweal overnight. Then we hit Mount Isa and her super-sized mine, her super playground and her underground hospital. Then it’s onto Cloncurry where there's not much to do but cook up a vegetable n' chickpea curry storm. That, and catch the footy telecast to witness St Kilda's grand final hopes get dashed.

Hard to contain the enthusiasm when the kids realise that we are now entering the Sunny State of Theme Parks and Waterslides.
There is - on the freeway - an actual dotted line indicating where the Northern Territory ends and Queensland begins. Keeping an eye out for road trains, we enjoy some interstate leapfrog. Now we're in NT... now we're in QLD... now NT... now QLD...
Deep in the bowels of Mount Isa's restored WWII underground hospital.
Daredevil Benji on one of the many awesome pieces of playground equipment at Mount Isa's Family Fun Park, located right next to the city's copper 'n lead mine. Smoking chimney billows at rear.
Playground Playmates.
Curry in Cloncurry

Gems at Gem Tree

Gem Tree is an outback station that facilitates a hands-on fossicking experience in the nearby Central Australian gem fields. The dirt where we are taken to dig yields Garnet, an unassuming stone that shines a deep red when held up to the sun. We depart early for a tutorial on site about the tools and process, and are then left on our own to find our fortune. It is hot and tiring work, Budge's back buckles under the strain by late morning, and by lunchtime we are home. But we are not empty handed. All up we find 13 stones, which - uncut and unfaceted - are valued at approximately $500 in total. Not a bad result for a mornings work. We have no plans to hock them to a jeweller anytime soon, but it's helpful to know that the funds are there should the chiropractor's bills blow out.

Early in the day and it's all hands on deck with picks, shovels and seives.
Once a jolly swagman... pulled his back muscle... and was forced to keep digging whilst sitting under shade of the coolabah tree...
Rikki and dad keep hunting for gems... whilst Benji keeps himself entertained... 
When we pulled over for a wee Wee stop in the MacDonnell Ranges, Jack found his second lucky horseshoe. No better excuse for a game of horse shoe throw once we set up camp at Gem Tree.

MacDonnell - not McDonald - Ranges

Our day exploring the West MacDonnell Ranges takes us to the historic Hermannsburg precinct - a Lutheran mission that became the first town in Central Australia and birthplace of Aboriginal watercolour artist Albert Namatjira; along corrugated 4WD-only roads stained a deep dusty red; and to the staggeringly beautiful Ormiston Gorge with its lookout and swimming hole. We leave early and return late, satisfied indeed with our day in the desert.

Inside one of the old mission buildings - this one a school house - at Hermannsburg.
The red road that stretches through the range... and tells us beyond any doubt that we are in the heart of Australia. (We actually mark the middle point on our GPS, flagged forever more...)
Climbing to the lookout at Ormiston Gorge.
View into the Gorge from the lookout. Today we opt to do the short lookout climb before heading down for a swim in the waterhole - instead of tackling the full Gorge hike. It is a wise, kind move that brokers no complaints.  
Budge, Jack, Rikki and Benji over on the other side of the waterhole, the big boys having braved the very cold water to swim their way across, the two little 'uns walking up and around the side to avoid the chill.