November 11, 2017
Every time I go on a bush walk, I find myself thinking, “This is the best bush walk I have ever been on and the views can’t get any better than this.” However, each bush walk that follows seem to top the one before it. Today, I knew that I was going to have a great bush walk and see a few waterfalls, but I had no idea how much greater-than-great it would end up being and how much more than waterfalls we would be seeing, above and below ground.
Keith picked me up at 6:45am. We chatted along the drive that is now becoming quite familiar to me. He said that if someone was to hike each of the bi-weekly club hikes held each year from about February to the end of November, it would take about two years to hike all of the bush walks that the club goes on. That really put into perspective for me that despite all of the exploring I have done around Townsville with the club, there is so much more for me to return to explore in future trips to AU. As we drove towards the Paluma mountain range, Keith pointed through the windscreen at the area that we would be hiking today.We were going to be hiking along tracks created by Wilfred, possibly the most experienced bush hiker and trailer blazer in the Townsville Bush Walking Club, if not all of Townsville and beyond. Wilfred has created over 80km of trails around the Paluma Dam area in the last 30 or so years. His trails are secret in the sense that they are not advertised online or printed in public maps. But, Wilfred is extremely open to sharing the map he has created of all of his trails. I was so excited to discover where Wilfred’s tracks would lead us, because I knew that they would be to fantastic places that not many people have been to.
As we were winding up the curvy road to Paluma, we came across a feral pig crossing the road. This is the first feral pig that I have seen in AU. It was smaller than I expected, nothing compared to the 4-H county fair pigs back home; but they still do a ton of damage in the landscape across Australia. As we drove, I watched the temperature drop from 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit) down in Townsville to only 16 degrees Celsius (61 degrees Fahrenheit) by the time we reached the rainforest up in Paluma. It was a chilly morning, even for me, so that is proof that I am acclimated pretty well to the AU heat. The group of ten of us met up at the Paluma Dam.
We eagerly started hiking at 9am and immediately were lead up a steep hill that got all of us warmed up. The trail began on a National Park trail that circles around the Paluma Dam. Then, the trail splits off to where Wilfred’s tracks start. It is not uncommon for the bush walking club to be scrambling through raw and rugged bush, but Wilfred’s trails are incredibly maintained, so there was no bush-bashing at all today. As we hiked, I heard about how much work it takes to maintain the trails, especially after a cyclone. All tools, including chainsaws, have to get packed in along all of the trails to make sure that they are kept clear. Wilfred’s tracks are completely free of obstacles, however, unfortunately for me, they are not free of mosquitos.
I know that I have mentioned before how much these Aussie Mossys love my American blood. And right away this morning, despite having already applied bug spray specifically formulated for AU and plenty of tea-tree oil which I was told by locals is the best thing to do, I could feel my legs starting to itch. It is a dreadful feeling I have become much too accustom to the last few months. As we were walking, I tried hard to not scratch, but instead focus on swatting the mossys away before they took a bite. As I tramped along the track, the next thing I knew, we popped out at this look out, rightfully named Wilfred’s Look Out. As we stepped out onto the flat open rock, we spotted a Red Bellied Black Snake (very venomous, but not the most deadly in AU) stretched out for a morning sunbathe. As he slithered off into the bush, we found spots to sit and have morning tea while over looking the rolling hills of rainforest ahead of us. I also borrowed a fellow bush walker’s mossy spray thinking that perhaps another layer of a different bad smell would keep the mossys at bay.After morning tea, we hiked along Wilfred’s trail. I learned that he found the next place accidently while he was trying to find an old pipe line mapped out on historic maps of the area. Instead of finding the pipe line, he found an incredible rock formation that is now known as the Torsten’s Rock Garden, named after Wilfred’s friend who helped him cut out many of these tracks. Before we got there, I was trying to imagine what the Rock Garden could look like. I didn’t have to spend long wondering though because after about 20 minutes, we had arrived.
The Rock Garden is incredible and massive. It proved impossible for me to capture its scale or full effect even slightly in the short amount of time that I had to attempt to photograph it. The Rock Garden is a formation of huge boulders; but calling them boulders is an understatement really. Upon the boulders, epiphytes of ferns and moss create all kinds of patters and textures. On the epiphytes, rain forest moisture collects and glistens in the shafts of light that shine down between the canopy of leaves from trees that are also growing upon the boulders. Keith pointed at a crevice between two of the boulders and told me to go check it out. Walking into pitch black, there was a triangular opening looking up into the tree tops that let some light shine in. “Any bats?” Keith asked. “Nope,” none were home right now. Wilfred joined me and said that when he first found the Rock Garden, he thought he heard running water coming from within this crevice, but he knew that running water in here would not makes sense. After exploring further, he said he realized that the sound was a colony of bats living in here, all rustling about in a way that sounded like water. That must have been an impressive display to find. After leaving the Rock Garden, we hiked for a while as I tried even harder not to scratch. There were lots of birds to listen to and people to chat with. I love hearing about where everyone in the club is from. There are actually quite a few club members from the UK, which I think is quite interesting. We kept our eyes open for fungi and mushrooms growing and spotted quite a few examples of each. We came across two different types of bowers, one of leaves turned bottom side-up built by the Tooth-Billed Cat Bower Bird (Australia sure has a way of naming its wildlife…) and another bower built by a different species of bower bird that uses thousands of sticks to create a large and elaborate bower. I also was shown what Cassowary poop looks like when we came across a pile in the middle of the trail, but unfortunately there was no Cassowary hanging around to go with it. It would be so amazing to see one though. It is on my AU Bucket List for sure. Next, we came to a cascading waterfall around 12:30pm. As we walked out from the forest, a cloud of mossys followed me. We sat above the waterfall for lunch with an incredible view. Here I found myself wondering which view was better, this waterfall or the view from Wilfred’s Look Out. It is impossible to choose, because they are both incredible. I am so thankful to be seeing much more of the Australian landscape than I expected to explore while here. Australia is a lot more than beaches and outback. It is also stunning look outs and waterfalls. “Do you want to see something really impressive?” Keith asked me. “Of course!” I replied and followed him down the rocks along the waterfall. As we came to the waterfalls edge, the roar of the water was loud and powerful. Looking over, I could see the pool it was splashing into below, and then another drop off where it was cascading down another cliff. We carefully made our way down the face of the waterfall, always avoiding wet rocks that are super slippery. From the base, the waterfall was even more incredible. Again, it was impossible to capture the entire magnitude of the view in a single, or even multiple, photographs. There are some things that simply must be seen in person. Keith told me that this is Big Crystal Creek Waterfall and that this is the only trail that leads to it.
After climbing back up the waterfall, I joined the rest of the group to finish my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I smashed mossys on my legs that left red streaks behind. That wasn’t a good sign for me and my level of itchy-ness. Again, someone else offered me their bug spray before we left and I layered on another coat hoping that four different products would be enough to keep more mossys off, but I knew that I already had plenty of bites to drive me insane.
Once we were back on our feet, we carefully crossed the stream. Wilfred went ahead of us for this part because he needed to get to the next stream crossing to tie the rope back up. Apparently in the last cyclone, flooding brought a tree down the stream that detached the rope across one side. But, once we met up with Wilfred, he had the rope secured at both ends again and we were able to make our way across easily with only a wet toe or two. The next point of interest that the track led to was the site of Jack Johnstone’s Hut. At this point, there is sign with an image of the hut taken back in 1911. Below the image it says “You are standing on the foundation of the hut. The walls and roof were made of maple slabs.” It was super cool to be standing on such a neat historical site in the middle of the Australian rainforest. At this site, there is also a clearing that Wilfred even keeps the grass cut at. Here, we took a fork in the trail that lead to a ditch dug out by the miners over a century ago. This ditch became our tail headed towards a super special area.
The next place we came to was the DCK Shelter. This is way more than what Jack Johnstone’s hut appeared to be by the look of the photo. This is a fully functioning house in the rainforest that Wilfred built with his family and a couple of friends on a ten-acre mining claim that he has purchased. The layout of the house includes a flushing toilet, hot and cold running water, a shower, fire place, kitchen area with a pantry box and hot plate for cooking, solar powered lights, a dining area, and a bunk room with six beds. There are even leveled off tent sites, a hammock hanging near by, and a swimming hole below! Everything here had to be carried in, and there were no sacrifices made in materials for the sake of easier packing. Stone pavers make up the floor. A large metal cupboard is the pantry. There are true chairs, and pan in the bottom of a shower just like in the average home. It is amazing.
Again, this place is secret in the sense that you will not find it listed among Townsville hostels or Air B’n’Bs if you do a Google search. But if you come across it yourself or find out about from a local, Wilfred has made it completely open for respectful use of fellow bush hikers. On the face of the pantry door, black script reads:
All visitors please record the number of walkers in your group in the guest book.
Please leave hot ashes in fireplace.
Please put cold ashes in the ash bucket outside! (near tap)
If you would like to use the DCK Shelter over night, please ring Wilfred on 47788441 before hand or email email@example.com
Another note welcomes hikers to the private property and invites them to help themselves to everything in the pantry, as long as the box is securely fastened before leaving. He also shares maps of his local trail network and instructions on how to get to the nearest point with cell signal, which is still a hike away.
We enjoyed afternoon tea here around 2:30pm. We also celebrated Wilfred’s up coming birthday with a sultana cake that Rosemary, another one of the bushwalkers, baked for him and carried in her pack this whole way. I had the honor of signing the guest book for the day along with the other person who had joined us for her first walk with the club. It was fun seeing some of the other entries of hikers who have passed through and also enjoyed the use of the DCK Shelter. Wilfred is so generous is making it accessible to anyone who hikes by for tea or to stay the night. As I enjoyed my tea and incredible company, I could not even count all of the blessings that I was feeling. It was emotional, truly. After everyone had helped tidy up our tea cups, we started hiking towards the “wine cellar.” I was pretty curious about what on earth they could mean by wine cellar. From the trail, everyone stopped and looked down and steep and muddy slope. “Go check out the wine cellar,” I was told. So, while embracing my adventurous spirit without hesitation, I made my way down the slope using the exposed tree roots as foot and hand holds. As I was about halfway down, Keith tossed down a rope for my use, but I was doing fine without such assistance. I have had people in the club mention my painted nails a few times and felt that I needed to show them that just because I keep them painted doesn’t mean I mind getting some dirt under my nails. Once I climbed down, I couldn’t help but break into a huge smile. The wine cellar was an old tin mining shaft dating back to the early 1890s! Once Keith and Rosemary joined me down below, we walked in and quickly came to the end. They must have realized quite quickly that there was no tin in this spot. It was so neat to be exploring such a surprising and historical area.
Once I climbed back up the slope, again without the help of the rope, I brushed off my dirty hands and joined in line continuing down the track. Next, we came to even more mining shafts. These ones we were able to lookdown into. The wall of the shafts were perfectly square. You could tell that the miners put a lot of care into their work. As we looked down from above, Keith mentioned that some times a bushwalker suddenly appears from below waving back at us. “But it might be too wet today,” he said. After leading me over to the entrance of the mine, “do you want to go in?” he asked semi-hesitantly. I could tell that today he didn’t seem super keen to go in, “but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me” I said to slightly guilt trip him into coming along. But Wilfred said he would show me the way instead, and down we went. This time a rope was absolutely necessary. I watched Wilfred crawl in feet first, and then disappear over an edge. Once he called up that it was my turn, I did the same as I wondered how far down the bottom was over the edge. He guided me on exactly where to put my feet and I made it down to the bottom of the shaft and peered back up. It was so cool! As we looked around, another pair of feet came over the edge. Keith had decided to join us after all.
As we made our way back up and out of the shaft one at a time, I tried to keep as clean as I could since I wanted a chance of getting a ride back to campus is Keith’s ute (Aussie word for truck, short for utility vehicle). When I popped back out, I was a definitely muddier than when I went in, but it wasn’t too bad really. After leaving the mine shafts, it was a couple hour hike back along Wilfred’s trails before we rejoined the trail that boarders the Paluma Dam. We finished our hike right at 5pm, eight hours after beginning. As we walked into the parking lot, it started to rain. We had gotten super lucky that it hadn’t rained on us while hiking, but we were all a bit cold and for sure tired after the 18km (>11miles) that we had hiked. Wilfred and Suzanne invited us back to their place in Paluma Village for a “hot cuppa and biscuits” before the drive back to Townsville. It was so nice to have a hot tea and couple of cookies. In the end, despite the bit of Paluma dirt that I was still wearing, Keith gave me a lift back to Uni and I tried not to scratch the dozens of bug bites that I felt all over.
As I reflect on all of the amazing things we saw today, I cannot pick a favorite place we visited. But I can conclude that today was absolutely one of my favorite bush hikes ever. I know that I will continue to get more and more emotional as I enjoy my last month in Australia living out this dream, and I will continue to count my blessings by tallying abundant once-in-a-lifetime memories that I will forever be thankful for and cherish greatly. Thank you for following along on this journey with me. Stay turned for more four-eyed adventures soon to come.