On a 4WD adventure along the Bloomfield Track in Queensland, Christopher Somerville finds that the tropics of Australia are as spectacular and diverse as they are vast.
The black-tipped reef shark came skittering through the shallows on the end of my line. "Strike, Dad!" urged George, but I was too late. A twitch, a sudden slackness, and the little fish went zooming off among the mangrove roots.
"Should have got into him a lot earlier, Dad," George advised, bringing to bear his five years' experience as a resident of North Queensland. My wife Jane had no better luck with her couple of casts, but neither of us cared. Here on this fabulously beautiful, nameless beach, halfway up the rough old Bloomfield Track between Cairns and Cooktown, we were more than content to watch the jade-green Coral Sea and rejoice in being reunited with our son once more.
A good tarred road runs north into the outback of the Cape York Peninsula through scrubby bush and parched cattle country, but we had opted for the excitements of the Bloomfield Track's steep stony slopes and splashing crossings of crocodile-rich rivers, a wild ride through the tropical rainforest along the Queensland coast. We spotted a cassowary skulking among the trees, several wallabies and a pair of crocs flat out on the muddy banks of the Daintree River before we got to the Lion's Den, a rare old roadside pub of corrugated tin. A cold beer apiece for the three of us, before rattling up a track to the rainforest retreat of Mungumby Lodge.
The North Queensland Outback is uncompromising country but oases like Mungumby help cushion the trip - simple but comfortable chalets among the trees, main building with a huge veranda where we ate melt-in-the-mouth steaks while geckos ticked and scurried on the walls, and an early-morning bath at Hidden Falls in the forest.
Then a slow drive via the mysterious dark rock piles of Black Mountain, a place of hidden chasms and strange cries from trapped wind and water, to reach the sleepy outpost of Cooktown on the estuary of the Endeavour River.
Gold rushes, fevers, shipwrecks, battles, grand schemes that came to dust - plenty has happened since Captain James Cook spent two months repairing the storm-damaged Endeavour here in 1770. The cannon and anchor lie in the town museum (an elegant former nunnery) and hundreds of pioneers, mariners, slavers and churchmen lie in the cemetery.
The town slumbered through the hot afternoon, its tattooed, singleted anglers hardly able to raise the steam to reel in another trevally. We joined them on the jetty and Jane soon hit gold in the shape of a big spotted cowfish. No one blinked. You don't waste energy on congratulations in the baking tropics.
In the cool of the evening George drove us up the hairpins of the steep and rubbly road to Alkoomie Cattle Station.
"Welcome," beamed Merrilyn Holmes. "Now, just come here and you'll see why we say we're closer to heaven than Earth."
We gasped in unison as we rounded the homestead and found ourselves at the lip of an escarpment that plunged 457m to immense flatlands below. The plain swept east between forested mountains to where the Endeavour and Annan Rivers snaked towards their mouths. Cooktown formed a pale bar and 80km away on the horizon lay the faint line of the Great Barrier Reef.
A genuine jaw-dropper of a view.
You have to be flexible with your plans on a 18,600ha cattle station way out in the Queensland bush. Merrilyn's husband Allan had gone mustering among Alkoomie's 400 head of cattle earlier in the day and hadn't come back, delayed by truck trouble. Allan never did make it home while we were there. We didn't mind, not with Merrilyn there to initiate us into the local ways.
We fed and petted the cattle horses, the turkeys and the puppies.
We watched Boots the cattle dog round up the long-eared Brahmin cows.
We took the station ute (that staple of the Outback) far down into low cattle country and picnicked and swam at Pandanus Pool.
A spectacular sunset, seen from a viewpoint well named "Top of the World", gave way to a starlit night. We sat out by the campfire at the edge of the escarpment, eating smoky salt damper and a casserole cooked in the embers, passing around the wine bottle and the chat, while a million stars drifted in and out of the bonfire smoke and the lights of other homesteads twinkled across the black plain far below.
Getting there: Major airlines connect daily from Auckland to Brisbane and Sydney, from where local carriers go to Cairns International Airport.
Details: Sargent 4WD Hire at 399 Sheridan St, Cairns, offers 4WD vehicles, essential for the Cape Tribulation-Helenvale section of Bloomfield Track and to reach Alkoomie Cattle Station.
Where to stay: Mungumby Lodge - Black Mountain, Cooktown.