A week in Far North Queensland

A visit to Far North Queensland (FNQ) a couple of weeks ago reinforced the conclusion that a longer time is much better. With the world’s oldest rainforests and largest coral reef, as well as scenic country, wilderness, misty mountains, tropical agriculture, intriguing towns and a distinct culture, FNQ is substantially different to my home territory 3,000km to the south.

Friends Peter and Steve generously provided accommodation at their rainforest B&B, located about an hour and a half south of Cairns. This base offers exceptional relaxation in a very special environment; with the sounds of a rushing stream and rapids coupled with late Wet Season showers on a tin roof, the deep green of the rainforest, wild bird calls… as well as walks beside surrounding sugar cane and banana farms, and allowed easy day visits to:

  • characterful Innisfail – featuring Art Deco architecture and quirky local culture, and access to the abundant harvest of its fishing fleet
  • the Atherton  Tablelands – gorges, waterfalls, more rainforest, atmospheric towns, lush farms of cattle, sugar cane and bananas
  • the Mission Beach area where two world heritage areas meet (the Wet Tropics and the Barrier Reef).

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Mission Beach looking out to the Coral Sea and Dunk Island, one of many islands close to this coast. You can walk 14 km along the beach for similar sublime views, then explore the rainforest as a contrast, hopefully to sight a Cassowary.

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A wild Brush Turkey making eye contact at breakfast time.

Utchee Creek swimming hole at the rainforest B&B.

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In Australian country towns, pubs usually represent the strongest architectural presence, occasionally challenged by churches. Pub patronage has generally been more enduring.

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The Criterion Hotel in South Johnstone.

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The Malanda Hotel at Malanda in the Atherton Tablelands – above. Below – the Grand Hotel in Atherton and the Royal Hotel at Herberton.

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Innisfail was substantially destroyed by a cyclone in 1918. An Art Deco theme in the rebuild is a feature of the town, similar to the architecture of Napier in New Zealand, rebuilt after that town was destroyed by earthquake in 1931.

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The sign for Ansett Airways – ‘Book Here’ – omits to mention that the airline became bankrupt in 2001, probably just another example of local humour.

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While some towns in FNQ are flourishing, others like South Johnstone are in decline.

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Sugar mills remain important.

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South Johnstone; the cane train line to the sugar mill runs up the middle of the main street.

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Tully’s sugar mill. Tully is the wettest (or second wettest) town in Australia averaging more than 4,000 millimetres (160 in) annually.

I’m heading north again very soon.

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Gadding about in Gujo-Hachiman, Japan

2008-04-18 10.19.52

After staying in Tokyo for ten days, the time had come to visit Gujo-Hachiman, a pretty historic small town of around 17,000 people located in the mountainous spine of Honshu island, north of Nagoya. We were fortunate to have been invited to stay with our companion’s friends.

The journey began at Tokyo’s Shinjuku station, used by an average of 3.5 million passengers daily. With typical Japanese efficiency, the train ticket specified the exact spot on the platform to wait, requiring just a few steps to reach our seats through the carriage doors that opened right in front of us.

We took the Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train, for the first part of the journey to Nagoya, about 520 kilometres and a couple of hours away. A regional train then took us north into the hinterland, to catch the final leg of the journey in a single carriage that slowly ascended the narrow valley to Gujo-Hachiman. This last trip was the highlight of the train journeys of the day.

In the Shinkansen the country-side speeds by in a blur, at speeds of up to 320 kph – there goes Mount Fuji – while the local train to Gujo-Hachiman allows passengers to savour the views at a leisurely pace.

Gujo-Hachiman is a castle town, and sits in a narrow valley straddling the picturesque Yoshida River which is renowned for having some of Japan’s purest water. Traditional wooden buildings and narrow lanes from earlier centuries abound in the old town centre and are flanked by more modern apartments and homes. A deep sense of history pervades the town. The castle dates back to the 1590s, although reconstructed in the 1930s. Whenever you glance up , it is always there, perched on a hill-top overlooking the town, and floodlit at night.

Water is central to Gujo-Hachiman. Numerous streams and waterfalls descend from the hills in untamed forms, or tamed by stone canals that provide water for drinking, through using a bamboo ladle that sits in a small stone pool awaiting a thirsty passer-by. Stone fish traps are channelled off the river, although today they’re used more for leisurely fish feeding than their original purpose of providing food.

Gujo-Hachiman hosts a renowned month-long summer folk dancing festival, the Gujo Odori, which began in the 1590s, where dancing takes place all night long. It also celebrates the river, illustrated by young men diving from the town’s bridges in the warmer months. For us, the town offered superb walks through the old streets and lanes, along the river, visiting Shinto temples, the castle, the hills and forests, as well as workshops and galleries of artists who reside in this neighbourhood. Our April visit coincided with cherry blossom time, and the steeply forested hills were peppered with flowers of cherries and other trees,

My companions and I stayed with friends whose riverside house offered the soothing sounds of the river flowing over the weir. Sleeping in a tatami room, a traditional style room with mats on the floor upon which roll up bedding is placed, and partitioned off by sliding paper screens, was very relaxing, aided by the calming sounds of flowing water below. We also enjoyed assisting Yuka in her English classes in the evening, both with young teenagers and an adult conversation group, as our hosts ran a small private school.

Although sceptically inclined, I recall Gujo-Hachiman by the mysterious events experienced one evening when we three Aussies went out for an enjoyable dinner in the old part of town. On our walk back through the centre of town to our hosts’ home, we came upon a large black rock engraved with Japanese characters, glistening with water from another small waterfall trickling down from the hills. We heard odd noises, like the voices of children, all sounding quite unsettled, softly wailing, keening or lamenting. We walked around to the rear of the rock, but could see no electronic contrivances, no source, no explanation for the apparently human sounds.

We described our experience to our hosts who are very modern, highly educated and rational people. They said that they hadn’t heard of such a thing, but did describe how the rock was a memorial to the victims of the devastating fire of 1652 that destroyed much of the town’s wooden buildings, killing many people. This was the first we visitors had heard of the fire, even though we had noticed red metal buckets hanging from the front of buildings throughout the town. We left the topic there as an interesting and unresolved mystery.

Further information:

http://www.gujohachiman.com/kanko/sightseeing_intown_e.html

http://www.gujohachiman.com/kanko/history_e.html

 

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter G.

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