Judy Bailey gets acquainted with the reclusive platypus and enjoys the hospitality at Australia's first solar-powered and carbon-neutral resort.
"Watching people watching animals tells you a lot about human nature."
Those sage words come from Ross McLennan, my laconic Aussie guide as we venture to the remote Hidden Valley in north Queensland in search of a living dinosaur, the reclusive Australian platypus. This shy little creature looks the same today as it did 110 million years ago.
We are hunkered down on the bank of Running River, silently willing the little critters to show themselves. Ross has told my fellow travellers not to make a sound or the platypuses won't come. And when and if they do appear, on no account are we to yell "There's one!"
But one of our group hasn't been listening. He stomps up and down the riverbank, the maze of platypus burrows beneath him reverberating with his every footfall. There are ripples in the water, a sure sign the platypus is close to the surface. And there he is. "There he is," the stomper bellows. The platypus disappears.
No matter, we did see the timid wee chap, one of about 300 in the colony here and it is a joy just to sit and absorb the sights and sounds of the riverbank in the deepening shadows of late afternoon. A lone barking owl heralds the evening. It's peaceful, beautiful.
Ross, his wife Chelsea and Ross' parents, Bonnie and Ian, run the Hidden Valley Cabins and Tours, just west of the Paluma Ranges in North Queensland, about 90 minutes' drive from Townsville.
Theirs is an award-winning eco resort. They also run night safaris and tours to landmarks such as Wallaman Falls and the Running River Gorge as well as encounters with platypuses.
But the McLennans are best known as trailblazers in the field of sustainable tourism, their cabins are Australia's first solar-powered and carbon-neutral resort.
Bonnie and Ian, once tin miners, bought the cabins 20 seven years ago. The original huts catered for the timber workers, tin miners and graziers who operated in the valley. The couple set about demolishing the old buildings and created the new resort from scratch. Both were way ahead of their time in the way they thought about the environment and the framework of the buildings is made from selectively logged local hard wood and the cladding from recycled railway sleeper off cuts.
Intrepid 'do-it-yourselfers', they did indeed do everything themselves, building, landscaping, the lot. And they continue to do everything themselves, from bed making and cleaning to cooking and tour operating.
"We are overworked sometimes. We're tired but we're never bored," says Ian.
It's a down home experience. From the minute you arrive you are welcomed in as one of the family. Gundi the dog is an integral part of all this. He seems happy to accept all-comers as prospective playmates and attaches himself to new arrivals like an official minder ... not in an intrusive way, you understand.
We gather, wines in hand, to chat to Ian as he tends the prime Angus steaks, sizzling on the brazier. Once they're free of the kitchen, the family join us for dinner. Talk flows easily back and forth over the chunky, outdoor dining table. Even in winter the air is balmy here.
Ian and Bonnie, Ross and Chelsea seem to get a genuine buzz from mixing with their guests, as Ian says, "You meet someone for three days, you never forget them. That's the way the world turns, it's beautiful."
He says it's the simple things people appreciate, the fresh, home cooked meals shared around a big table with like-minded people.
"It's all about making people feel comfortable and at ease," says Bonnie.
It's also all about sustainable tourism. Guests come from all over the world. Many are searching for eco-friendly experiences, they tell me, particularly younger travellers.
The McLennans applied for a federal government grant to install their standalone solar system that now runs the entire operation, providing power 24 hours a day. The system consists of a 12 KVA inverter and 18 90x130 solar panels which deliver 120 volts into a huge bank of batteries. It's efficient and cost-effective and means they save around A$40,000 a year on diesel.
Lighting is all being converted to LED, the new deluxe cabins have gas stoves, a chillybin instead of a fridge, a standalone brazier, and a barbecue should you happen to want to cater for yourself. The loos have an ingenious basin attached to the cistern so you wash your hands in the water that then fills the cistern. Shower water is recycled onto the gardens and sewage is dealt with in septic tanks.
While they're conscious about waste and recycling as much as they can, they don't recycle tins and glass, as transporting those items to the recycling depot creates a bigger carbon footprint.
After reducing their carbon-based emissions, the family was able to purchase carbon credits to offset things such as running their tour bus, and that's how Hidden Valley Cabins became Australia's first carbon neutral accommodation and tour business.
Now they are teaching others how to do the same. They run practical workshops that aim to encourage operators to install their own renewable energy sources.
Their plans involve a closer connection with indigenous people. The cabins already feature Aboriginal paintings which the McLennans sell on behalf of the artists, and they plan to build on that relationship.
"In tourism you have to keep changing, we had no clue when we started," says Ian a little ruefully.
They have plenty of clues now. And a string of awards to prove it.
Why are they so committed to the sustainable model?
"Well look around you," Ian says, "it's about what we're going to leave behind for the next generation. It's our legacy. Think about it."
MORE NORTH QUEENSLAND GEMS
About 70km north of Townsville, Paluma Range National Park, at the southern end of the Wet Tropics, is known for its tropical rainforest, lake, walking tracks and spectacular looks-outs. Big Crystal Creek and Little Crystal Creek offer swimming holes, picnic areas and, true to their names, crystal clear water.
Hinchinbrook, an hour north of Townsville, offers tropical rainforest, eco-adventures, cultural heritage, beaches and wetland areas. The closest mainland connection to Hinchinbrook Island, it is home to the 32km Thorsburne Walking Trail. Don't miss the Wallaman Falls; at 268m this wall of water is Australia's largest single drop waterfall.
Magnetic Island is 8km off the coast and 20 minutes away by ferry. Beaches, snorkelling, walking tracks especially the Forts Walk, where Northern Australia's largest koala colony lives, are all must-dos.
Castle Hill, a red rock monolith in the Townsville's heart, offers a slice of military history and views over the city across to Magnetic Island.
Upcoming Townsville events
November 16: The Troy Dunn Invitational is a top event on Australia's bull riding calendar.
4 April: Townsville's North Queensland Games offers more than 40 sports and a weekend of entertainment.
May 4: Groovin the Moo is a dynamic youth festival at Murray Sports Complex.
May 3: Australian Hand Cane Cutting Championships bring a piece of North Queensland history back to life.
May 10: The original Pub with No Beer saw a convoy of American soldiers from Townsville drink Lees Hotel at Ingham (then the Day Dawn) dry. Dan Sheahan rode in for a "coldie" and could get only a warm glass of wine. He penned a poem, The Pub Without Beer which went on to become Slim Dusty's, and Australia's, first worldwide No1 hit, The Pub With No Beer. The event will be re-enacted with an American convoy of military re-enactors and restored military vehicles, descendants of Sheahan riding to the pub and country music.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Fly there with Air New Zealand. Book now.
For further information see: myaustraliapassion.co.nz.