11/30/13 - 12/4/13: Koah & Undara Volcanic National Park, Queensland, Australia
The night was black as pitch but for our headlights beaming into the dark. Curves came at us like waves in the ocean, and Vik was just ahead of us taking each turn with the confidence of a local. Two living creatures forced us to swerve: a snake, with its body coiled and head raised; and a toad, which we believed to be of the infamous Cane toads that ravage Australia’s countryside – in which case we shouldn’t have swerved. Either way, no animals were harmed in the making of our way to Koah, Queensland, Australia.
Several months prior to going down under we contacted Katie’s cousin, Asha, to see if she had any housing leads for us. Asha was our initial inspiration for our RTW trip and she spent significant time in Australia and had several connections. She was able to hook us up with her uncle, Vik, and his family. He owns property in Koah, a small hamlet in the hills just west of Cairns, and graciously offered us lodging in a cottage on his land. We happily accepted.
So, after our day out on the Great Barrier Reef, we were now zipping along a narrow road trying our best to keep up with Vik and his speedy ute (that’s truck, in Australian). In the dark of night we couldn’t see much when we drove onto his property – a path lined with palm trees, several chickens pecking about, and a hopping kangaroo. The little cottage grew closer, glowing from within. Vik had left the windows and sliding glass doors open to air it out. Once inside, he promptly checked under the beds to ensure no snakes had slithered in. An environmental hazard, it seems. I appreciated the warning.
The next morning we awoke to a bright red bird tapping at the window and zooming around a disco ball hanging just outside the sliding glass door. It stared at its own reflection in apt curiosity, wrapping around the sphere over and over again like a satellite in orbit. This, we quickly learned, was a morning ritual for our flying friend. Beyond the mirrored planet we saw the beautiful Queensland landscape: tall waving grass, draped emerald trees, and wee little wallabies enjoying a sunrise hop.
Katie, we aren’t in Kansas anymore…
Just after rising and putting on our clothes, we heard our names being called in the distance. Vik and his wife, Helena, were beckoning us to come outside and greet the day with a morning walk along their property. Their land was stunning with forests, large pastures, and running alongside a river. They even had a stock of wild horses. Yes, WILD horses. They’re called brumbies in Australia, and Helena is in the process of taming them. She’s been working with them for years and they are now eating out of her hand, literally.
Katie and I are both nature lovers, but we’ve got nothing on Vik and Helena. Their lives intertwine with the wild. Their home is half outside, half in, with a covered porch that leads to an outdoor sink that leads to an indoor kitchen with a missing wall. Everything is open, airy, and welcoming – not just to humans, but to all of God’s creatures. It’s no wonder Vik checked for snakes under our bed, they seem to have forked-tongued visitors in their house quite frequently!
At breakfast we met Vik and Helena’s two sons, Aiden and Liam. Liam was 15 and shy and Aiden was gregarious and happy to chat about his recent 18th birthday (that explained the disco ball). We also learned all about their annual family trip to an island called Pelorus. Now, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that watching a stranger’s home movies sounds about as interesting as a listening to a seminar on taxes, but when they showed us footage of their elaborate camping trips to Pelorus I was enthralled. There are no facilities on the island, they pack in everything (including water), and they inhabit the island all alone for two full weeks. What an adventure! To top it off, Vik and the boys go spearfishing every day, so they’re eating fresh fish and rockfish (lobster) for dinner every night! Yeah, Pelorus is pretty much every boy's fantasy: swimming all day, catching your own food, hiking the hills, lazing on the beach, and sitting around a campfire at night. Heaven on earth. They invited us to join them if we ever come back round to Australia. I’m seriously tempted.
After getting to know one another, Helena gave us some tips on places to go around Koah. Upon further research we decided to drive inland for an overnight camping trip to Undara Volcanic National Park. Undara is famous for its extensive system of lava tube caves which were discovered just over 100 years ago underneath the red rock of the outback – that’s right, the Australian outback! We were only half a day’s drive from seeing the famous desert scenery, and we weren’t going to miss it!
As we drove west through the Atherton Tablelands, the landscape morphed into a bucolic wonderland that rivaled the rolling hills of New Zealand (It didn’t surpass it, of course. Nothing surpasses New Zealand). It was serene and completely different from the untamed jungle we’d just experienced on the east coast. We broke off from the main road to drive along a scenic waterfall loop. The weather had grown cool and misty, creating the perfect atmosphere. Only a few other tourists were enjoying the circuit, so we were able to appreciate several cascading waterways all on our own. A rare treat.
Before long we were back underway, heading west into the desert. The landscape dipped and spread. Trees shrunk, anthills rose, and the rich earth turned dry and dusty, staining the ground as red as rust. The road’s constant sidewinding now went unbent, pointing straight as an arrow towards the sun. Thus began an easy coasting free from distractions and worry. Well, except for the road trains. Yes, the road trains! This name is only a slight exaggeration. When a semi-truck is dragging three full loads of cargo its appearance is not unlike a train. Nor is its maneuverability. Imagine a barreling road train trying to suddenly swerve or stop. They’ve been known to run through cattle in their haste! I wish I were joking. Our eyes stayed peeled on the rearview mirror the whole way, waiting for those goliaths to manifest. And they did. Often. We happily gave way every time.
When we arrived at Undara we saw a series of classic train cars retrofitted as bungalows, a restaurant that resembled an old railway station, and absolutely no people. No one. No cars, no campers, no tourists. “Hello?” I called out in the open restaurant, the sound echoing off into the desert. Both of us worried that the park was closed and we’d driven all this way for nothing. Luckily, a young woman emerged from the back and helped us out. Apparently we’d arrived during the “green” season, which means the low season, which means a skeleton crew of 4. During high season the lodge is full and there are over 30 staff members! The good news was that the holiday season is the best time for a sunset tour. Why, you ask? Because ‘tis the season for bats! 60,000 microbats, to be precise. And right now they were flying out in droves at night to feed on millions of insects. Take a wild guess as to whether or not we wanted to go on that tour?
Just before sunset we jumped onto a shuttle with two other guests (yes, as it turned out, we weren’t alone after all!). Our driver and guide was Steve, a 100% Aussie. He was prideful, boastful, opinionated, and knew the outback like the back of his hand. He told extremely entertaining stories about other guests, tours, and his Aboriginal friend who was an outback guru. Since our tour group was so small he took us up on a bluff to watch the sunset. Normally, he said, he wasn’t allowed to bring guests up there because it was too “dangerous,” but he figured we seemed like an intelligent bunch who weren’t going to break our legs climbing up rocks. He was right and we were grateful, because the view was spectacular, right out of a film – crooked green trees, thin haze on the horizon, and a setting sun of buttery gold. Steve supplied champagne, cheese, and fruit, and the five of us toasted the vista and drank it in.
Next, we drove to the mouth of a cave as the daylight dimmed. Walking out, with flashlights in hand, we saw tiny specks darting out of the ground and into the evening sky. Bats were beginning their nightly migration. The opening of the cave wasn’t what I expected. Wooden stairs lead the way down and several bushy trees crisscrossed the path, arms reaching out to one another. I wondered why the trees hadn’t been cut down to make entering the cave easier, then Steve raised his flashlight to reveal…
Brown tree snakes were crawling up the branches getting ready for the hunt – it was dinner time! For these long, thin boas, microbats, with bodies the size of mice, are the perfect meal. The only problem is they have to be quick to catch them. It’s not easy snatching a bat that’s flying through the air. Most snakes slither home hungry the next morning, but the lucky ones eat a meal that will satisfy them for weeks.
The sky was black by the time Steve led the way down with his industrial-sized flashlight in hand. We walked under branches as snakes crawled and dangled above. Down into the mouth of the cave we went and finally stood in the middle of its circular opening. No bats were flying out because Steve’s light was on. When bats see light (no, these kind aren’t blind) they assume the sun is out and fly back into the depths of the cave. Before he turned off the light Steve warned us not to move around too quickly because the bats may hit us – they can only adjust so fast while flying. He also told us to wear hats because these bats, unfortunately, aren’t house broken. We gave him a nod, all of us prepared for bat guano to rain down on us and leathery wings to flap by.
The mouth of the cave disappeared and we were enveloped in a blackness so thick you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. And then I heard them – the bats were racing toward us in droves, summoned by the darkness. A flutter, a flapping, a whoosh. The intensity grew as their numbers increased. I could hear their light chatter and feel their furious wings beating as they soared up and out into the night. It was like being inside a small windstorm, with gusts brushing up against me from all directions; thousands of bodies cruising past me, unnoticing. They felt like a thousand puffs of life waving hello and goodbye in an instant, and I was thrilled to be standing in their path.
Meanwhile, tiny drops of moisture sometimes fell on my hand or cheek. I even looked up once and was rewarded with bat droppings on my face! I quickly wiped it away and asked Steve again, “You’re certain I’m not going to get a disease from their feces??” No, he replied, but I scrubbed hard and kept my face forward after that. It was a minor inconvenience compared to the one-of-a-kind experience I was having. It’s not often you feel part of something so primal, with the sound of wild nature literally wrapping around you.
Once the bats were flying out in force, Steve counted to three and all of us switched on our flashlights. For a couple seconds we were granted the unbelievable sight of thousands of bats flying directly at us. Almost immediately, though, they’d see the light and swing back into the cave. Then we’d turn off our bright beams and draw them out once more. This pattern happened over and over again until we got our fill, but in all honesty I could’ve stood their all night. It was fantastic!
When we finally walked out under the trees we scanned the branches to see if any snakes had nabbed a bat. Success! A bat was within one snake’s mouth experiencing the long and grueling process of being swallowed. (When you have to expand your jaw 10 times its usual size it’s bound to take a while.) To make matters worse, a larger tree snake was trying to steal the bat away! All of us were rooting for the little guy. I hope he won in the end. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay to see the end of this epic battle since snakes wage war very, very slowly.
The next morning Katie and I toured the lava tube tunnels in the light of day. Steve was our guide again and did a great job showing off the rock formations, natural cave designs, and warning us about the dangers that lurk within… (he is an Aussie, after all). We rounded out our time in Undara with a hike through the outback where we saw a gigantic spider, came upon kangaroos hopping through the bush, and confronted a nasty magpie who enjoyed attacking our heads. It swooped down out of nowhere and was bent on killing us! At one point I was running away and risked a glance back to find it eye level, flying at me from 10 feet away!
“It’s still coming! RUN!!” I screamed, and we kept tearing up the trail until we were out of its territory. And before you say I was being a sissy, I’ll have you know that those birds are notorious for pecking at people’s eyes! I wasn’t anxious to star in “The Birds” that day, thank you very much.
With our feet sore and our skin sweaty, we drove east, back to the lush green coastline. At this point I’m not sure which area is more dangerous: the desert or the rainforest. I suppose when they both reside in Australia the answer should always be: All of the above.