The Place of Flowers, Girraween National Park

Girraween National Park, south of Ballandean, is a majestic place. If I hadn’t seen the rushing rivers, colourful wildflowers and massive granite boulders myself, I’m not sure I’d have believed Girraween was really in Australia. The name means ‘place of flowers’ in the Aboriginal language, and it was a riot of colour when I was there: a spectacular display of purple, pink, white, yellow and red illuminating the brown landscape.

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

The park has multiple trails that take you to points of interest and through lovely landscapes. I only had the morning, so wasn’t able to do the longer hikes, but the walks I did, covering around 10km of trails, gave me a good idea of the park. Close to the car park, easily accessible pools and boulders attract quite a few people. Further away, I hardly saw anyone and those I did see only brought bad news.

On one trail I met two women coming the other way. We exchanged ‘hellos’ and, almost as an afterthought, one said to me, “By the way, we just saw a red bellied black snake on the path.” A voice inside my head screamed, “A what? A red bellied black what? Run, run for your life.” It must be remembered, snakes don’t exist where I’m from, and my reaction was perfectly normal. As calmly as I could, I asked if it was a dangerous snake.

Clearly my eyes gave me away, because with more glee than was entirely necessary she said, “Oh yeah, very dangerous. About a hundred yards ahead.” This, it turned out, wasn’t the entire truth. They can be deadly, and are not to be taken lightly, but the red bellied black snake has the decency to avoid humans if at all possible. Not that I knew that at the time.

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

A little further along I met a woman walking alone and thought I should pass on the snake warning. She didn’t seem too worried, and said the very worst thing anyone could have said to me at that point, “The red bellies aren’t so bad, it’s the brown ones you need to be worried about. Don’t go into the long grass, they won’t thank you for stepping on them.” Long grass? There and then, I decided to stay away from all grass.

She was talking about the eastern brown snake, considered to be the second most deadly land snake known to humanity. It’s also known for being highly aggressive and notoriously fast. I’m not sure a stick is good protection against snakes, I picked one up anyway, but only after carefully checking it wasn’t a snake. It’s amazing how many sticks look like snakes.

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

There are eleven types of snake in Girraween, a fact they deliberately underplay in the tourist literature. To add to my sense of trepidation, there’s no mobile signal in the park. Get bitten by a snake – brown, black or any other colour – and you’re on your own. Quite frankly, it’s a miracle I’m still here to relate this tale.

Dangerous wildlife aside, Girraween is a fantastic place to hike. I was surprised by the amount of water in the park, there were several rivers, one of which I followed down to The Junction, where two rivers meet. The scenery along this route is beautiful, and for the first time on my trip I realised just how different Australia sounded and smelled. The bird song is unfamiliar, the plants and flowers have an unknown smell. Wonderful.

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

The real danger in Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

The real danger in Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Making my way back from The Junction I completed the Bald Rock Creek Circuit, before heading to the Granite Arch and the Pyramid. It was a hot day, and by this time I’d run out of water (despite the many warnings at the Visitor Information Centre). I decided it was time to head north on stage two of my journey to Cairns. I had a long drive ahead to reach Crow’s Nest, and onwards to Hervey Bay.

Before that though, I made a quick visit to Dr Roberts Waterhole, where I saw an eastern snake-necked turtle. It seemed like a fitting end to my time in Girraween.

Dr Roberts Waterhole, Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Dr Roberts Waterhole, Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Eastern snake-necked turtle, Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Eastern snake-necked turtle, Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Wine tasting in the Granite Belt

I’d planned to leave early in the morning and have the weekend in the Granite Belt, but a night out with friends in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley ended late enough for me to watch the sun rise over the Brisbane River. I made it to the Granite Belt’s main town of Stanthorpe just in time to watch the sun set over the surrounding vineyards, wine from which was probably responsible for my late start.

Queensland’s Granite Belt sits high on the western side of the Great Dividing Range, a mountain chain that you have to cross to reach this fertile region. The lush, green countryside and rolling hills that spread out between the two county towns of Stanthorpe and Ballandean, came as a complete surprise. The whole area seemed to be covered with vineyards and fruit orchards.

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

I was staying in a lovely wooden house on stilts, with a wood burning stove to ward off the cold nights – much needed at an altitude of over 800m. An agricultural hub, and home to around 6,000 people, Stanthorpe was my first taste of Australian small town life. I headed into the town centre to see if the tourist information office was open, it wasn’t, so I headed to the next best thing, the pub in O’Mara’s Hotel.

I ordered a beer and took a seat at the bar alongside a couple of regulars. We were soon chatting about what I should see and do while there, the general consensus being that I should definitely do wine tasting in Ballandean, and that I shouldn’t miss the Girraween National Park. It turned out to be excellent advice … as was the chalkboard at the end of the bar!

The next morning, I did a beautiful scenic loop to Ballandean. It was such a lovely morning that it was a pleasure to be wandering the countryside. I came across wooden churches in the middle of nowhere, small villages, historic ranches and, of course, vineyards. Twice, I almost ran over large snakes, a reminder that life in these communities can be perilous. Finally, it was time to sample some Granite Belt wines.

Vines have been cultivated here for wine production since the 1870s, thanks to a far sighted, and presumably thirsty, Catholic priest of Italian descent, Father Davadi. There were lots of Italian settlers in the area who had the knowledge and skills to make wine, mainly for their own consumption. Over the last 140 years though, the Granite Belt has learned a thing or two about making good wines.

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Despite producing some of the highest altitude wines in Australia, the Granite Belt still has a low profile outside of Australia. The wines made here are growing in popularity though, and are increasingly well-known. The region is most famous for red wines, but I tasted a chardonnay at Tobin Wines in Ballandean that was spectacular. So good, in fact, that I carried two bottles of it back to the Netherlands.

“Passion” is a word often used in the wine business. The owner of Tobin Wines, Adrian, embodies it to an extraordinary degree. Basically, he’s an unapologetic wine fanatic. I wanted to try the tempranillo but, due to his exacting standards, the next batch won’t be available until 2020. Which was how I ended up with the chardonnay, and learning his philosophy that a superb wine is possible only if the grapes are of the highest quality.

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

He’s a small producer, and some years has chosen not to produce any wine because he felt the fruit wasn’t good enough. Not that that should be a surprise, after he bought the vineyard he spent a decade perfecting the vines before producing a single drop of wine. After a fun hour with Adrian, I headed down the road to the region’s biggest and best known producer, Ballandean Estate Wines, for another tasting.

The Ballandean Estate is the area’s oldest producer, dating back to 1930 when Italian immigrant Salvatore Cardillo and his daughter Guiseppa settled here. Guiseppa married Alfio Puglisi, another Italian migrant, and the Puglisi family still run the business today.  They’re famed for their red wines and, if you’re going to find a Granite Belt wine outside of Australia, it’s likely it will be from the Ballandean Estate.

The Kangaroo Comet, an Australian road trip

First impressions are important and Queensland was living up to its nickname as Australia’s Sunshine State. The turquoise waters of Moreton Bay, illuminated in the early morning sun, definitely made an impression, particularly on someone arriving from a northern hemisphere winter. This was a much anticipated trip of travel firsts for me: a new country and a new continent that I’d not previously visited.

I arrived in Brisbane with a vague plan to drive north to Cairns, before taking a flight to Perth in Western Australia. I’d given myself eight days for the drive to Cairns, which on the map looked realistic. Three days into the journey, the scale of the undertaking was dawning on me. I wished more than once that I’d stayed by the blue waters of Moreton Bay. I reached Cairns some 2,912 kilometres later and never wanted to drive again.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Before arriving, I had a sense of Australia from the connections between it and Britain. It proved to be very different from perception. A strange cultural hybrid with hints of the UK, America and Asia that is uniquely Australian. It also has the power to redefine things. The word ‘big’, for instance. Or the term ‘middle of nowhere’. You can drive for hours without arriving anywhere.

There was one 400km stretch of road, north of the unloveable town of Rockhampton, where I thought I might die of old age before reaching Cairns. The mind numbing monotonous countryside was only occasionally punctuated by enormous trucks thundering past, and a variety of fauna in different stages of decay at the side of the road – killed by trucks thundering past.

Kangaroo road sign, Queensland, Australia

Kangaroo road sign, Queensland, Australia

Emu road sign, Queensland, Australia

Emu road sign, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Distances are so great that the government has devised ‘Fatigue Zones’ to help you stay awake at the wheel. You know you’re in a Fatigue Zone when the road signs stop being useful and start asking you trivia questions. I passed one which said, “What is the fastest land animal?” Either I fell asleep or there was a missing sign, because the next one I saw said, “Peregrine Falcon”.

Other road signs have pictures of kangaroos. These warn you of the perils of hitting a kangaroo that has hopped onto the highway. Judging by the number of dead kangaroos I saw, the road signs aren’t working. The attrition rate for kangaroos on Australian roads is horrific; they should make road signs with big trucks on them to warn the kangaroos.

Whale watching, Queensland, Australia

Whale watching, Queensland, Australia

Whale watching, Queensland, Australia

Whale watching, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Beach, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Beach, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough National Park, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough National Park, Queensland, Australia

I didn’t see any koalas, living or dead, but there are road signs for them as well. Can you imagine running over a koala? Flattening the cutest animal on earth? Killing a koala is probably the worst crime a human can commit. At least that’s what I thought until I discovered they feed their own faeces to their young. These are the sorts of internal dialogues you have when driving 2,912km in Australia with only local radio for company.

Throughout the journey I met good people, ate good food, drank good wine and had great experiences – drinking wine from a small Granite Belt vineyard while watching the stars come out on Whitehaven Beach will live long in the memory. My one regret is that I didn’t have more time. This is a fascinating country full of natural wonders, and I wish I’d been able to see more.

Vineyards, Granite Belt, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Granite Belt, Queensland, Australia

Boat near Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Boat near Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Brisbane, my start point, is an energetic and attractive city with a lovely riverfront reminiscent of London’s South Bank; I visited the little known Granite Belt wine region; walked through extraordinary national parks; stayed in the historic Gold Rush town of Charters Towers; went whale watching off the coast of Fraser Island; learned the legend of the Bundaberg polar bear; and camped on Whitehaven Beach, one of the world’s most iconic.

It may have been 2,912km of hard driving, but Brisbane to Cairns was a brilliant trip…