Red Dirt: Part 1
Updated: Nov 30, 2019
From Rainbow Beach to Isaac River
The 3.0 L diesel engine roared to life when I turned the key. We wiped some of the dust off the inside of the windshield and took in a deep breath of the fresh Aussie air coming in through the windows. Ahead of us lie 1,600 kilometers of dirt roads, highway and the scorching outback. With our first campsite plotted out on the map, we pulled Matilda slowly away from her campsite in the soft white sand on Inskip Peninsula.
With a longing look, we peered back at Fraser Island, vowing to return and drive one of the worlds most renown 4x4 destinations. Unfortunately, the beach driving would have to wait, as we had distance to cover and our heavily loaded Nissan more than likely heightened the risk of being bogged and using precious time. With a quick pit stop in town to resupply and grab a coffee, we hit the open road!
With the wind whipping our hair, the smell of fresh air, ocean and hot pavement filled our truck in an aromatic blend that smelled like adventure. Now mind you, driving with the windows down is fun and all for an hour, maybe two, but when your truck has no working AC, it becomes a necessity. A necessity that becomes very tiring after about five hours of constant wind noise and a nice thick layer of sweat that forms between your back and the car.
You know what I love about Australia? It seems no one cares what you do, as long as your respectful and don't break the rules; everyone's just out to enjoy life. As a side effect, this means that a large chunk of the gravel and dirt roads on the side of the roads are open to drive, meaning more fun for us! So while cruising through the middle of Tuan State Forest, we spotted an appropriate looking dirt road, pulled off the highway and began our little off-road adventure. Even fully loaded, our green Nissan Patrol drove amazingly! Up and down we went over hummocks and dips, pushing aside stray branches with our shiny bull bar.
With our Hema Maps running, we navigated through the maze of narrow winding logging roads, completely swallowed up by the massive pine trees of the forest. Behind us a nice plume of red dust was kicked up by our mud terrains, further giving us that authentic Aussie driving experience. Seeing as it was already 1:00, our stomachs growled ravenously and we pulled to the side to make that perfect power food, PB&J. Using our pause as a perfect photo op, I threw our drone up in the sky and snapped a few pics while Anna made our impromptu lunch.
Sandwiches devoured, we were again on the road just in time to experience some of our first corrugations that we'd heard so much about. I think bone jarring is an understatement, as I clutched the wheel and Anna grabbed any odds and ends that tumbled forward from all the vibrations. Much to our relief, the gravel faded to pavement and the road was once again smooth. Our destination, Gaeta Valley, was only a few short hours away. Pretty soon we pulled down a winding gravel road leading through cattle land that opened up into a gorgeous valley that could've been pulled straight from Napa Valley.
Kudos to Wikicamps for the amazing free sites we found to camp at. We pulled into the Gaeta Valley Rest Area, amazed at the immaculate campground with running water and toilets. There's no way that this was a free campground, but lo and behold it was! With our tent set up right in the golden hour, I of course used the opportunity to snap a few more pics of the gorgeous mountains surrounding our campsite lit up with the golden rays of sunlight.
This being our first night actually camping in a remote location, we may have been a bit too hyper aware of potential dingos after reading a few reviews that warned of these wild dogs. Washing dishes on the edge of the campsite was certainly an interesting experience to say the least, but I can say it was dingo free!
We truly appreciate the effort and work of of the Gaeta community and the members who made this such an awesome campsite! It was a shock finding a free site in such great condition, but thanks to people who care about their community and care about travelers it certainly makes us extremely appreciative, especially after spending the whole day on the road! If you happen upon a site like this, please take the time to pick up any trash you may find, or even just leave a thank you note!
From Gaeta Valley, we had another 6 hour haul north to our next camping spot called Isaac River. As we pulled out of the grassy campground we drove through the open cattle land in awe of the valleys that were lit up in the golden morning light. We cruised through the winding gravel roads until we were stopped by a local traffic jam. A traffic jam that was comprised of one big black cow. As we rolled to a stop the cow shot us a sideways glance of indifference and stood still, cheerily chewing on a wad of cud. Anna and I looked at each other with a look of "what to do!?" Apparently we just had to move forward and inch up closer to the indifferent cow until with what sounded like a sigh it finally moved out of our way.
Traffic jam cleared we continued onward, Matilda kicking up a large cloud of white dust behind us as we wound through the gumtree forests and winding gravel roads. We quickly found ourselves on some narrow back country roads that wound around hairpin turns, up steep grades and down slippery slopes passing signs for blind corners and UHF radio call points for logging trucks.
If you want an adrenaline rush, try driving narrow slippery gravel roads in the outback with barely enough room for a logging truck to pass beside you and a steep cliffside, followed by being blinded by a massive wall of dust. But its all in good fun, right?
You know the old adage that everything that goes up, must come down? Well we had been going up and up, and we soon found the down. We knew it must have been a serious downhill since it switched to pavement and was started with warning signs of low gear and high downgrade. Down we went, crawling down in second gear and feeling gravity pull us forward in our seats as loose pieces of kit spilled into the front seats. Three times steeper and windier than the Blue Ridge Parkway, I could feel my knuckles turning white from gripping the steering wheel while negotiating our slightly top-heavy vehicle around all the hairpin turns. Lucky for us the only other logging truck using the road was heading downhill as well, so using him as a traffic shield we fell in place behind and let him take the lead.
As the road flattened out, the speed also went up, pushing 100 kph, as it shifted into "highway." Now by highway I mean a strip of pavement only wide enough for one car at a time bordered by gravel shoulders wide enough to fit a car and a half. It wasn't too bad until the truck that we had been keeping pace with pulled off to the side releasing a storm of blinding white dust to let a caravan pass. As the caravan passed we moved along slowly, unsure if the truck had returned to the pavement or not we started to edge our way out onto the road again. Through the murky cloud we peered, suddenly making out the silhouette of an oncoming logging truck tearing down the road right towards us. Definitely an "oh sh*t!" moment to say the least as we swerved back onto the shoulder, narrowly avoiding becoming the likes of the many kangaroos plastered on the side of the road.
After two hours of winding roads, steep climbs and semi truck dodging we could say with confidence that it felt good to return to a normal highway and pavement again. After fueling up at a small gas station on some side road we plunged onto the highway to get some kilometers under our belt.
Now I consider myself a slight geography nerd, and I find it the coolest thing crossing major lines of latitude. Our route took us through the town of Rockhampton, which just so happened to be where the Tropic of Capricorn crossed. The tropic was marked by a huge spire and sundial, as well as two giant signs delineating the tropical north and the temperate south. As of now, we have officially crossed the Tropic twice, once by plane and once by truck and foot! Major line of latitude crossed, we jumped into Matilda once more, fired up the engine and pointed north again to our next campsite.
The latter part of the day was spent mostly on the A1 highway, which in itself isn't terribly remarkable. Things got a bit more exciting though as we pulled off the highway to track down our campsite that was nestled about 100 kilometers off the highway by a creek. Once again the pavement soon disappeared and we found ourselves cruising down gravel leaving a telltale trail of dust. Finding some of the campsites can be slightly questionable sometimes, as we pull down what looked to be more of a local access road. Oh well, the map says that way so that way we'll go! Our hesitation soon vanished as we pulled into the campsite that was nestled under the gnarled limbs of massive shag bark trees and filled with a symphony of local birds and koala calls. Wikicamps once again came through with another amazing campsite nestled away on the gently curving banks of the Isaac River.
That's about the halfway point for us, so stay tuned for Part 2 of our journey north to Cairns!