As we left the Daintree and Kuranda behind to trek out to the remote Undara Lava Tubes we enjoyed a few scenic stops around the Atherton Tablelands, a picturesque plateau on the Great Dividing Range. Our first was the famous curtain fig tree, a strangler tree that grows on top of another tree, sending an army of roots down to the ground before growing until it has killed the original tree and stands on its own. This particular curtain fig was growing on a host tree that fell onto another tree which the fig also began to grow on. Now that both of these original trees are dead, the fig and its hundreds of 15 metre long roots form an impressive, free-standing sight. We then enjoyed a scenic picnic lunch at Lake Eacham, a crater lake formed over 12000 years ago by magma rising from the earth’s centre. We then joined the tourist horde flocking to Millaa Millaa Falls, an 18 metre waterfall above a freezing plunge pool. There we enjoyed the sight of two bus-loads of backpackers shedding their clothes and screaming as they entered the freezing water, attempting to hold smiles behind gritted teeth as their friends took souvenir shots. The waterfall itself was beautiful and impressive in the amount and sound of its water flow, it’s no coincidence that Millaa Millaa means “plenty of water” in aboriginal. From there we needed to get moving as the lava tubes are in a really remote area and we had a sunset tour already booked. Of course the GPS decided to take us along a final ‘tourist drive’ through the Tablelands to rejoin the highway, this lead to me taking hairpin turns and narrow winding roads at a pretty challenging speed. Other than Susan feeling slightly sick and JH making fun of my driving and looking slightly scared I am happy to report that we rejoined the highway without incident.
It’s a four hour drive to Undara and we were starting to look like we would miss the sunset tour we were booked on so as the Fajons fell in and out of sleep I picked up the pace. Dodging various potholes, dead kangaroos and unrecognisable carcasses, I managed to register a personal best of 150km/h. Rest assured this is pretty safe as the roads are long, straight and almost abandoned; I think that during the whole drive we only crossed half a dozen cars. We got to Undara just in time to check in, unload our bags into our glamorous tents, take a toilet break and get to the full tour bus of waiting tourists. Apparently they only had to wait for us for a few minutes but it was suitably embarrassing and made worse when there were not enough seats in the back of the bus; I had to sacrifice myself and sit up front. Normally I hate this seat simply due to the obligatory uncomfortable conversations with the driver but this time there was an added bonus: I was the designated wildlife spotter. This took on a new twist as we proceeded into the national park towards the sunset viewing spot and the driver began to profusely excuse herself for the wildlife that was just not materializing. Luckily a child in the back spotted a kangaroo a few minutes later, simultaneously taking the pressure off me and demonstrating my poor roo spotting skills. Luckily I later distinguished myself by shouting out: “I see one on the left”, then as the bus screeched to a halt, “Oh no, it’s just a rock”, then as the bus started moving again, “Oh wait it is a kangaroo after all”. God-damn it I hate sitting in the front!
The next highlight was actually getting to the spot where we would be admiring the lingering sunset, though at this point it seemed as if the sun might have already set. It turns out the viewing area is just on a random clearing, not even on the top of a summit or even an anthill. This was later explained by the guide: as the sunset tour includes some free champagne, it turns out that good old tourists on previous tours would get slightly hammered and then some klutzes had the good idea of falling down the hill whilst admiring the sun. Due to this, the tour now convenes on this unnoteworthy clearing with absolutely no view of the actual sun setting… luckily champagne is still involved and combined with some free crackers and cheese turned out to be the tour’s salvation. Getting drunk with your wife and inlaws in the middle of nowhere as the sun sets out of sight and chasing after wallabies and other assorted wildlife is actually quite fun. Really the highlight of the tour had yet to come and once the guide managed to rip us away from our champagne flutes we were herded down a boardwalk to a set of steps leading into one of the lava tubes. The tubes are home to over 4 species of bat and the tube entrance we were standing in front of was home to a rather large colony of microbats. Our guide turned on her powerful flashlight for a few seconds, allowing us to catch a horrifying glimpse of the man-eating, rabies infected horde of caped vermin. Okay, okay, it turns out that these microbats feed on insects but still… Once the flashlight was off and a short period of calm was observed we suddenly felt an almost rhythmic breeze against our faces, accompanied by varyingly close and increasingly frequent swooshes. These were the bats leaving the cave to go out hunting and I’m relieved to say that not a single bat hit my face.
After the tour we settled into our tents (which were actually permanent structures in the shape of tents) and began to think about dinner. Lolo and I set out to the free bbq plates and started to grill up some steaks and vegetables whilst JH and Susan prepared for their first night in the Australian outdoors. Of course what happens at Undara stays at Undara but I can say this: they adapted well and looked very cute when we returned to the tents and found them both with headlights firmly attached to their skulls. The night was cold and Lolo slept closer to me than most nights, I’d like to think out of love but most likely in a crude attempt to harness my body heat and before we knew it a new day was upon us. The biggest shock was our first introduction to morning Susan, aka the coffee monster. It has now been a month of travelling with Susan and JH and my two most important lessons are: have a coffee prepared for Susan upon her waking and JH likes his bread. In the morning, in the afternoon, at dinner, ensure JH has easy access to some bread! Anyway, enough about the joys of travelling with inlaws and onto the lava tubes themselves.
The word Undara is aboriginal for “long way” and not only are these tubes a loooong way away from civilization, they also stretch out for a long way underground. In fact, the Undara lava tubes contain the longest flow of lava originating from a single volcano in the world. The tubes were created over 190000 years ago when the whole area was a massive active shield volcano. A shield volcano is one that has a “large size and low profile, resembling a warrior’s shield” and that is “built up almost entirely of fluid lava flows” – what this means is that these volcanoes contain a serious amount of flowing lava. Over the course of a 3 month eruption a massive amount of lava flowed slowly along the gently sloping plains of the area towards the sea, probably following ancient river beds. Because of the gentle slope, the consequent slow progress of the lava and the fact it was filling a depression, the surface of the lava started to cool and harden even as hot lava continued to flow below at temperatures over 1200C. As the eruption ended and the lava continued to flow, eventually travelling along one tube over 160km, a multitude of massive tubes were left behind. Over time, some sections of the roof of these tubes became weaker and collapsed, forming over 50 caves; this is how the Undara lava tubes and caves were formed. We went on the least adventurous of the tours available but it was still a stunning sight and an interesting experience as we walked through an archway standing alone due to previous collapses and into a section of lava tube. We all enjoyed our time at Undara and the guide was fun and helpful – if you have the time (and budget) we would definitely recommend it. The area is also teeming with wildlife, we were woken by blasted kookaburras mocking us with their famous laughs and we had the pleasure of catching a mummy kangaroo with her joey just by the campground’s swimming pool. Unfortunately an altogether less pleasant wildlife encounter was awaiting us.
As I sped down the desolate highway and back towards Australia’s east coast the steady snore of three Fajons kept me awake and aware enough to dodge what seemed like half of the wildlife in the surrounding savannah lying dead in the middle or on the side of the road. All was going well until I came upon a rather large kangaroo carcass, opting to pass over it instead of swerving totally into the other lane I lined up the tires and slowed down. The resulting clunk woke up the 3 Fajons simultaneously. Yes, I had just hit a kangaroo, yes it was dead, no I hadn’t killed it, yes you should go back to sleep. Instead, the legendary Fajon bladder dictated that a toilet stop was on the cards and we stopped a few kilometres later in a tiny rest area next to a somewhat smelly bush toilet. It turns out that things were not as they seemed… but more on that later. Bladders appeased, we jumped back into the Kia-mobile and continued on, taking a rather ill-advised detour to Townsville before heading to our destination for the night: Ayr. We took the detour to Townsville in order to drive up the Castle Hill Lookout which gives 360 views over the city, the close-by Magnetic Island and the surrounding plains as far as the eye can see. Lolo and I had walked up Castle Hill during our last visit and boy did it feel good to drive this time around. The sense of accomplishment is somewhat diminished but the view is the same. On top of that we were treated to a magnificent sunset, which was a double edged sword. On one side, the views were spectacular and the blood orange sunlight reflecting over the ocean below was mesmerizing. On the other hand it meant that we would be completing the remaining hour or so of driving in the pitch black and we would be getting to Ayr late.
Unfortunately things were about to get a lot worse. Susan had detected a seriously bad stink when she got out of the car and was getting a bit queasy as we approached the car again to leave. We were also starting to pickup on the smell which closely resembled the deep stench emanating from those highway toilets we had stopped at. This is when Susan put two and two together, looked at us with sad eyes and a squinched nose and announced that what we had been and were now smelling was probably the dead kangaroo I had hit. Ohhh goooood, it’s crazy how much worse a smell can get when you know it is coming from a dead body. Suddenly we began to smell the funk even with the windows closed. I was even starting to wish that I had hit a live kangaroo instead of the rotting purulence of a long dead one. It got so bad that we started to search for car washes in town and I was all out of luck when we came across the only open one: it was a do-it-yourself. No words will ever be able to describe the pain I went through with a long hose in my hand, peering down across the undercarriage of the car searching for bits of week long dead roo as my wife and her family looked on. Blood washed away with strips of fur and after feeding the cleaning machine with about 10 dollars I had had enough. This is when Susan kicked me when I was down and suggested I clean up the washing bay for the next guy unlucky enough to drive in. My initial reaction of ‘hell no’ was slowly turned into ‘ok but only for you Susan’ as I picked up the hose once again to coral the wayward strips of skin, fur and god knows what else into the small gutter in the middle of the bay. I have never used so much Purell in my life.
We managed to make it into Ayr at a somewhat reasonable time, stopping to check out the super moon that was gracing the sky. Somehow our appetites were intact and we had a nice meal in the hotel restaurant before heading back to the room. Lolo and I prepped everything for our early departure the next morning to dive the legendary SS Yongala and as I walked to the car to pickup the last suitcase I tried my best to ignore the tiny but persistent smell of death emanating from the undercarriage of our Kia. Thank god we were giving it in in 2 days!