CategoriesUncategorized

5 of the Best Places to Mountain Bike in Phoenix, Ariz.

EDITOR’S NOTE (May 1, 2012): This post is really old. I will publish an update soon. Subscribe (it’s free) in the box to the right so you don’t miss it!

EDITOR’S NOTE PART II (May 11, 2012): UPDATED and cooler than ever.

I just recently ran into an old classmate at an ad hoc high school reunion. He’d moved from the area, and mentioned that he was getting more into mountain biking, but isn’t sure where to ride here. Naturally, I promised him some tips … and then I thought, “hey, maybe some other people besides Mitch would dig some advice!”

So here are 5 places in the metro Phoenix area where you can ride. Each will offer something different. These are in no particular order. I’ve linked each to my buddy at MTBikeAZ.com, who has produced some fine maps and profiles!
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McDowell Mountain Regional Park: There is something for everyone here. The Competitive Loops host all sorts of races. You can choose from the Long Loop (about 9 miles), the Sport Loop and the Technical Loop (both about 3 miles). You can string them together for some uberloops. All require some skill to handle steep drops, breaking bumps, rocks and lots of loose nastiness. Speeds can run high. Leave your iPod at home … rattlesnakes love hanging out trailside, and your earbuds will mask their warning signal. And watch the trail closely – that big rock you’re zooming around just might be a desert tortoise! Also, the park offers a 15-mile loop called The Pemberton, aka Trail B. This is technically easier, a varitable mountain bike super highway. By the way, the MTBikeAZ site’s map of this is outdated. Pick up a fresh one when you come into the park. Some snobby riders will label it boring: Not true. It has all sorts of offshoots to explore – and if you’re not up for a 15-mile loop, it has lots of connections back to the trailhead to cut it short, some of which are so fast that you’ll arrive at the bottom before the sound of your tires on the ground does. The park entry fee is $6, and it’s a screaming deal: The race loops feature a beaut of a new bathroom. Trail B’s launching pad has a groovy restroom AND a vending machine!

Pima and Dynamite: This is great for winter epic rides. You can just go forever and really get away from the red tile roofs. As you head away from the intersection, you’re on a false flat as you roll your way up. The terrain undulates and wiggles beautifully. Lots of hardpacked stuff, but it gets more wild and wooly the further north you go. Bring lots of food, water, sunscreen and tubes! Epic high desert scenery makes it even better. The terrain can be tricky and the speeds can be high. I rode here once with a friend, and we went home bloody, thirsty and late: His wife banned me from their house for one year, saying I brought him home sun-baked, penniless and smelling of cheap perfume. I only participated in two of the three! No bathrooms or facilities of any sort here. A bummer … this is State Trust Land, which means you need a permit. Yes, you really do. It’s pretty cheap, though it requires prior planning.
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Phoenix Mountain Preserve: Trail 100 is the mainstay of this ludicrously awesome urban park. The visionaries who set land aside for this gem deserve medals. There’s a trail at Tatum just south of Doubletree Ranch Road. You can ride this monster clear to 7th Avenue … and don’t forget all the side trails! Bring a GPS for sure so you can log everything you ride. Some terrain can be tricky: Crossing the Dreamy Draw freeway and heading west takes you up a few nasty climbs, and into a hideous, rocky wasteland. That eventually turns into some wild, good-time singletrack. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a snake, a bunny or three or even a ringtail. There are actually water and toilet facilities scattered around, which is nice.
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Papago Park: You experienced riders out there better stop snickering. You were once a newbie, a squid, a beginner. And I’ll bet this is where you cut your teeth. Mountain biking isn’t just about YOUR ride – it’s about what you pass on to create a new generation of riders. And Papago is the place to train your apprentices. And let’s face it: this place is fun. That four-mile loop around the old golf course is fast as hell, with beautiful sweeping turns that’ll help even the stoniest veteran keep them skills up. Parking, bathrooms, vending machines and water fountains are scattered all around. As your skills (or those of your apprentice) improve, head south to some short but steep climbs and a few super-secret drop-offs way south toward the freeway.
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Fantasy Island North Singletrack (FINS): This is a new trail, and I pumped out 900 words or so about it for the awesome Mountain Flyer magazine. It’s a bit controversial, though, as you’ll see from the article. But we won’t worry about that, for now. Let’s focus on this: People who know and love mountain biking built this beast, and did a right bang-up job. They smashed a lot of miles (15 and counting at last check) into a really small footprint. It’s all hardpacked and groomed. These trails are fast, like bowling balls on a greased bobsled track. There are some switchbacked climbs that’ll burn your legs and scald your lungs. Lots of turning, barely any straightaway flying; that’s to keep the speeds reasonable and hone your turning and braking skills. No facilities here, either, so stock up on the water and be willing to pee outside.
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Okay, I know some people’s rides got the shaft. I know there will be weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. I’ll give some explanations below about why some got left off the list, but here’s the bottom line: If you don’t like my choices, go write in your own blog about your favorite rides!

Onto those that didn’t make it:

South Mountain: The Mormon Loop, the National and the Desert Classic are legendary around here. But you know, they’re just too crowded and eroded to be my favorites.

Hawes Loop: Too much road pedaling to fully access everything.

Estrella Mountain Regional Park: Because it’s the most suck-a-licious, pointless, loose-rocked POS trail I’ve ever turned tires over.

A few quick mountain bike notes about Wandering Justin: Riding since 1992. Ex shop mechanic. Raced in several 12-hour races (including one win in co-ed sport category), several epic singletrack races, one state series. Rides a 2006 Gary Fisher Cake 2 DLX, but likes Santa Cruz and Specialized way better. Has been (falsely) accused many times for gross malfeasance, negligence and nincompoopery leading to riding parties getting lost.

CategoriesUncategorized

Descending into the Abode of the Gods – Belize

From my January 2007 trip

And a quick note from Wandering Justin – even after touring the mighty Australian Outback, this day still holds its own as one of my greatest ever days traveling. Do NOT miss this if you go to Belize!

This is one of the best vacation days I’ve ever had. I knew it would be cool, because I enjoy caves in general. It’s hard for me to pass a hole in the ground without strapping a light to my noggin and diving in.

But the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, known as the ATM Cave, would surpass all my other underground adventures. I’ve been in bigger, more scenic caves before. But I’ve never been in one that contained an underground river and the most incredibly graphic, gruesome vestiges of the Mayan culture. Nor one that made just getting there such an adventure.

The day started at the Maya Walk Tours headquarters in San Ignacio. The place was jammed with people milling around, getting their gear, meeting their guides, etc. It was a scene of total chaos. Finally, they tossed us all in an Isuzu Trooper and some weird Toyota I’d never seen in the states before (though the model is ubiquitous in Belize). We bounced along for close to an hour, first on decent paved roads and then into jungle roads that got more rutted, slimy and muddy as we drove. Meanwhile, there was a steady drizzle falling.

Our driver/guide, another guy named Emile, was telling scatological stories about people freaking out/needing to pee/getting the runs in the cave. One guy, who he claimed was a famous American football player, even filled his shorts up!

Continue reading

CategoriesAccommodations

Lonsdale Quay Hotel: Three Things to Know

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A few years ago, I visited Seattle and uncovered a love of the Pacific Northwest that I didn’t know I had. And many people, including my longtime friend Big Frank, insisted that I’d like Vancouver even better.

With that in mind — and despite the fact that the Canucks NHL team had been my

Clouds build behind Sarah.
Clouds build behind Sarah.

Blackhawks’ playoff nemesis in the 80s — Sarah and I booked a trip that would give us a little taste of attractions in Vancouver, Whistler, Victoria and a side of Squamish.

I’ll get to all those at some point, but today’s focus is on the Flight Centre Lonsdale Quay area. This is a bit of a haul from the airport and will probably be a $50 cab ride. You could take buses, but that’s up to you.

Our view from the Lonsdale Quay Hotel.
Our view from the Lonsdale Quay Hotel.

I’m a very big fan of the Lonsdale Quay Hotel. Since it’s across a bay from Vancouver proper, it’s very reasonably priced. Three other things work in its advantage:

1. The SeaBus connects directly from the Lonsdale Quay Hotel to downtown Vancouver, with easy access to all the fun that area.

It’s also a nexus for bus transport.

2. The first few floors are an awesome marketplace.

All the food you need, plus an extremely friendly coffee shop called Bean Around the World.

A trio of Stanley Park racoons.
A trio of Stanley Park racoons.

3. The Lonsdale Quay Hotel staff is friendly and eager to help.

And determined to be even better – for example, I filled out the customer comment card when we checked out. A few weeks later, the hotel’s GM sent a letter my way mentioning specific comments I had (an idea to stock rooms with more pillows, praise for a particular front desk staff person). I’ve never had that happen before!

Wandering Justin picks wild blackberries
Wandering Justin picks wild blackberries

Now, about that SeaBus – be sure to hop on. You’ll get off near the cruise ship terminals. For there, a sturdy walker can accomplish a lot: Chinatown, the under-construction Olympic Village, the southern portion of Stanley Park, probably a bit of Granville Island.

Get out there and walk, and then hop the SeaBus back to Lonsdale Quay when you’re ready to relax. Also, the bus service is excellent throughout Vancouver. In any case, just picking a direction and walking is a solid strategy. You’ll have a great chance of finding something fun.

A totem pole in Stanley Park
A totem pole in Stanley Park
CategoriesUncategorized

Puerto Rico – Go or no?

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I never really would’ve thought about going to Puerto Rico on my own. It just never occurred to me, especially since it’s harder to get to then a place like Costa Rica (which has all the jungle, more critters and, well, more on that later).view

However, some of the wife’s family seems to love Puerto Rico. So much so that they decided to tie the knot there. They’re from New York, so I was and am amply glad they decided to enter the ranks of the blissfully wedded there rather than in Nueva York. That’s what led the wife and I through Houston on our way to San Juan.

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A view up from El Canario by the Sea.

Now, Puerto Rico is a US territory. That means a number of things. It’s not gonna be wild, woolly and/or adventurous. They’ll take dollars. You don’t need a passport. And your dollar isn’t gonna go that far. That was obvious from the word go when we tried to book hotel rooms. Heck, we got way better prices dollar-for-dollar nearly everywhere in Australia, with the possible exception of Darwin.

That’s not to say El Canario by the Sea isn’t cute and comfortable, because it certainly is. It’s even in the very fun and lively Condado district, which is surrounded by restaurants and even one of the ubiquitous Condom World stores.

San Juan skyline.
San Juan skyline.

But it’s not $150 a night nice, that’s for certain. Most of the immediate in-laws stayed there the first night, but decided to make the jump to a Hampton Inn in the Isla Verde neighborhood. That’s right across the street from the Ritz-Carlton where the wedding would be, and it saved them a bunch of time that would otherwise go to buses or taxis. Sarah and I stuck with El Canario: It was cheaper, and it the neighborhood had considerably more flair than what we considered the rather plastic feel of Isla Verde.

The Ritz, though, has a sweet beach despite being very close to the international airport. That is probably Isla Verde’s biggest draw.

Isla Verde is close to the airport.
Isla Verde is close to the airport.

One thing that doesn’t endear Puerto Rico to us: the food. Aside from mofongo, there’s not a whole lot to it. And little of it is super-healthy. Some of the seafood is decent, though. Puerto Rico also suffers from the Latin American ailment that deactivates the skilled beer-brewing gene. Connoisseurs will turn their noses up to local offerings, where indiscriminate folks won’t even take the time to find it. Stick to mojitos.

Old-town San Juan is separate from the rest, and involves a bit of a bus ride. It’s

One of the forts in Old Town San Juan.
One of the forts in Old Town San Juan.

definitely worth it. It exudes charm, and offers some cool historic forts as centerpieces. The forts are open for tours during the day, and are creepy-cool at night. There are also lots of funky shops, some of which aren’t even that touristy.

Also worth a visit is El Yunque National Forest. The best way to get there is to rent a car. Bring hiking shoes, lots of water, some snacks and hike ’til you drop. It’s a nice rain forest, and you’ll even see some critters.

The question is this: go or no? I say no. Keep flying a bit further and you’re in

A critter in El Yunque.
A critter in El Yunque.

Belize or Costa Rica.

A tunnel in one of the forts. Cool!
A tunnel in one of the forts. Cool!
Another view of the fort.
Another view of the fort.
CategoriesAccommodationsAdventures

The dirt on Hopkins, Belize

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Hopkins, Belize
A stretch of beach near the main part of Hopkins.

Hopkins, Belize, is the place to get away from Starbucks. Traffic. Commercialism. Even ATMs.

Hopkins, Belize, is a town of about 1,000 people. And I’m serious about the ATM thing. Be sure you get some cash before you show up to Hopkins.

Hopkins, Belize
A cabin at Jungle Jeanie’s

For reasonably priced accommodations, check out Jungle Jeanie’s by the Sea. Jungle Jeanie is the wife half of the husband-and-wife ownership team. They are friendly and helpful, and have a pair of big dogs that roam on patrol. Xena, the German shepherd, is especially active and entertaining, especially when Jeanie tries to get her to surf. They serve  meals there, and you can also hoof it into town to try some local places. There’s also a pricier place or two as you walk south along the road. Many of the resorts even have semi-private bits of beach that they meticulously comb of former flotsam.

Hopkins, Belize
Charlie might not surf, but Xena does!

There’s not much to do in Hopkins, Belize. It can be hot as hell, even in January. There’s no nightlife. The beach isn’t even all that nice. But if you want to get away from the noise, the pollution and the nonsense, this is the place to do it. Local residents are friendly, and you’ll hear them speaking the really cool-sounding Garifuna language. It’s super-quiet.

So how do you get here? Chances are, you’re flying into Belize City. The best way to get there is to grab a Maya Air or Tropic Air flight

Hopkins, Belize
The afternoon gets stormy

from Belize City to Dangriga (the view is spectacular). From Dangriga, you can grab a bus to Hopkins, Belize. It’ll take about 30 minutes, though you might have to share some space with a mattress or a load of melons – the bus usually carries cargo, too. There were also some dudes offering boat rides to Hopkins, but they seemed sketchy. Dangriga is also a great place to grab some fresh fruit and a bite to eat.

Hopkins, Belize
The road to Hopkins, Belize.
Flying to Belize City from Dangriga
Flying to Belize City from Dangriga
CategoriesUncategorized

The Final Australia 2007 Post

Friday, Aug. 31

Seriously, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen an F-111 fly a few hundred feet over your head with its afterburners lit. This was part of a crazy celebration called Riverfire. If you ever visit Australia, do yourself a favor: Be in Brisbane for Riverfire. The video is lengthy, but it gives you a great idea of the fireworks display, and the jets that open and close it. Awesome!

We woke up early and took a stroll around the downtown area. This is a very outdoorsy city, lots of people running and cycling. After some breakfast, we picked a direction and walked. We also noticed that everybody was getting all aflutter about Riverfire. People were already lining the riverbanks to grab primo spots for the evening’s festivities. Sarah and I aren’t much for parades and shindigs, so we largely ignored it. We were pretty happy to be proven wrong later, but more on that toward the end.

Our first stop was the excellent Queensland Museum, which is really strong on science and nature. There was just too much cool stuff to see. We spent a few hours easily cruising around in there before heading out for general walking about. There’s a very neighborly feel to Brisbane, with a lot of non-chain store types of places. This particular section of Brizzy is like a big college town, even though Queensland University is down the river. Speaking of QU, we thought it would be fun to check out the campus.

We hopped on the CityCat, a huge, fast-moving catamaran, to scope out the river banks and get us a lift to the university. QU is actually a bit dumpy and not surrounded by as much funky cool stuff as, say the University of Washington in Seattle (talk about the epitome of a perfectly awesome university). We were pretty amazed by the sports facilities and the very athletic-oriented vibe, though. We returned to our area via the CityCat and headed to the area near our hotel. We strolled around the Queen Street Mall, which is a termite mound of activity at any hour.

We also stopped at The Brewhouse, which certainly doesn’t swing in the same weight class as Sydney’s Redoak. At that point, it was about time for us to look up Sarah’s former roommate, who happened to be living in Brizzy with her new dude Michael, who is in the Ozzy army. We were soon on their 23rd floor flat, which was right across from out hotel. This provided a great viewing point for Riverfire, plus it gave us a great chance to hang out with a bunch of Ozzies in their natural habitat. They were a very fun bunch, very lively and welcoming. The occasion, aside from Riverfire,was Michael’s birthday. Those cats sure enjoyed their karaoke! Well, we had a full last day. Time to pack! Boo, as Sarah would say.

Saturday, Sept. 1

Man, I can’t make any of this travel sound cool anymore. It’s depressing packing and heading for the airport. Especially when the lines are long and slow.

But still, what a great vacation. You don’t really need to know more than that, do you?

Sunday, Sept. 2

Back home, in Arizona. Tired, time sense jacked up. But this feeling is worth it, and more. Quit saying you want to go to Australia someday. Just go do it.

Well, that wraps it up! Thanks for reading … I hope you enjoyed reading as much I as I did writing. So what’s next here at Wandering Justin’s blog? Well, plans for New Zealand 2009 are well in the works – Sarah and I are filling up notebooks and plotting our course on a dry-erase board. We’ll share what we learn as we book hotels and activities, and pick up the necessary gear.

In the meantime, I’ll do a little time travel with some far shorter accounts of our adventures in Vancouver, Belize and Costa Rica. I might even go REALLY far back in time to my famous aerobatic journey in a WWII-era AT-6 Texan. So stick around – there’s more fun to come!

CategoriesUncategorized

Australia Post #11: Yunguburra to Cairns to Brizzy

Thursday, Aug. 30

The early bird gets to see a tree kangaroo, don’t you know? I was lazy this morning. But Sarah wasn’t, and she got rewarded: She went for a run and spotted a mama tree kangaroo cradling its baby.

The curtain fig tree is a big deal around here.
The curtain fig tree is a big deal around here.

Anyway, we grabbed a quick breakfast at the hostel (NOTE: The brown gooey stuff is Vegemite, not Nutella. Don’t believe otherwise for a second!) and drove off to see the curtain fig tree, which is just a slight detour from our route back to Cairns. It’s cool. Look at the pictures, and you can be the judge if it’s worth the trip.

From there, we dropped into a small park to hike down to one of the many crater lakes in the area. It’s not really a big lake, but it’s still really cool and worth seeing. But here’s the really exciting part: As we finished the hike (which was really too easy to really be a proper hike) and returned to the car, we saw the one critter that had been eluding us: a cassowary!

Cassowary poop! What does this thing eat, bocci balls?
Cassowary poop! What does this thing eat, bocci balls?

Now, these are big, mean, nasty birds. They’ll often chase joggers and rip up the roofs of convertible cars. They have nasty claws that can rip you up, and they’ll also peck the shit out of you.
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But me? I had a Steve Irwin moment, and “crikey’d!” my way up to it and fired off a bunch of photos before we dove into the car and sped off. Cool!

So far, this was shaping up to be another one of those rainy/sunny days. And it was quite cloudy as we headed down a one-lane road to our next stop: The famous Mungalli Creek Dairy. It’s what they call a “bio-dynamic” dairy. You can read the Web site to find out about that – all I can really say is that their food is great. I’m ordinarily not a cheesecake guy, and I think everything at the vaunted Cheesecake Factory tastes the same. That is not the case here. It had a cinnamon crust with dark chocolate and bits of orange in it. Even BETTER than it sounds. The cheeses were great, and they pull a mean shot of espresso. Awesome!

These funny turkey things are everywhere in rural Queensland.
These funny turkey things are everywhere in rural Queensland.

Then, we sadly had to get back in the car and drive back to Cairns. This is the sad point of the vacation: It’s nearly over, and there’s a good chance I’ll never see any of these places again. And that’s too bad, because this is just such a relaxing, beautiful, uncrowded place to be.
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The drive was pretty uneventful. I managed to stay on the proper side of the rode, and didn’t really scare anyone. Not even my passenger.

We returned the rental car to the friendly Avis people and got in line for the plane. The wrong line, it turns out. We’d be flying JetStar for this flight rather than Qantas. In essence, this means a nice, new comfy plane, but no free food or drinks. Bugger!

The flight to Brisbane was quick and uneventful, as was our baggage recovery. Wish I could say the same for getting to our hotel. Our hotel, it turns out, is way on the other side of the city and far from the city center. That wasn’t floating our boat. And the train was shut down for the night. Ugh!

Sarah worked the phones and canceled our reservations. We quickly found another hotel in the city center, and this one just happened to be across the street from where her former roommate, Megan, lives with the Aussie dude she was seeing at the time. They usually live in East Timor, but the Australian Army reassigned him temporarily to Brisbane.

Anyway, we caught a shuttle full of people to the city center. We had some friendly conversations. If you need to talk to an Aussie bloke but can’t thing of anything to say, just ask him about cricket. It’s the sport they all agree on and love. Naturally, I had a Stereotypical Aussie Bloke ready to yack it up with me.

The rest of the night? Walked about a bit, and then slept. Or tried to. There was drunken revelry next door.

CategoriesUncategorized

Australia Post #10 – Port Douglas and Yungaburra

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Tuesday, Aug. 28

For some time, I’ve chased an elusive fruit called the black sapote. It’s related to the persimmon, and I first encountered it in Mental Floss magazine, which also called it the chocolate pudding fruit. The magazine said it tasted like chocolate pudding. How could you not love that? I’ve scoured the Internet for any way to get a hold of them in Arizona, but could never succeed. The nearest was Mexico. I could try to grow my own, but that would take years. And my brown thumb would likely kill it. The only think I can grow is basil. But more on this later …

At the hotel, we were walking distance from a place called Four-Mile Beach. If you think that Sarah’s not gonna run that beach first thing in the morning, you’ve got another thing coming. I didn’t pack running shoes, so I just puttered around town a bit.

A hilltop in Port Douglas gives us a nice view of the South Pacific.
A hilltop in Port Douglas gives us a nice view of the South Pacific.

Anyway, Sarah came back and we went off in search of some breakfast and an idea of what we’d like to do with our day.

We rented a small motorboat ($30 for 90 minutes) and went up the nearby river system. It was fun to be at the tiller, but the scenery was only so-so. I had the most fun checking out all the old boats. I honestly didn’t spot any interesting wildlife.

Sarah is the highlight of the river scenery.
Sarah is the highlight of the river scenery.

I also thought about how nice it would be to live in Australia and just anchor a boat on the river, and maybe take it out into the ocean now and then. Ahhh…

Okay, now things are gonna get fun. We head up the road to Cape Tribulation. That’s where we’re going to the exotic fruit tasting. Orla told us this is a must, and she’s right.

It all happens at this organic fruit farm. Everybody gathers around a table while a staff member introduces every fruit, talks about its history and its used, cuts it up and lets everybody have a taste. There wasn’t a single fruit in the bunch I’d had before.

The elusive black sapote ... get in my belly!
The elusive black sapote ... get in my belly!

This is where I find the elusive “chocolate pudding fruit.” I didn’t find it to be that, exactly. It had a very, very slight cocoa flavor and a texture like a somewhat dry avocado. Apparently, the little suckers are also loaded with so much Vitamin C that they make an orange look like a potato. Breadfruit, mangosteen, white sapote and star fruit are also pretty cool. I might be skipping some, because we ate A LOT of fruit.

We grabbed a rather unspectacular dinner before heading out for a nighttime nature walk in the Daintree Rainforest. It was kind of cool, and we saw a few cute sleeping birds, an occasional lizard and a really big damn jungle rat. But honestly, this was pretty unspectacular. I’d skip it. It was two hours of trying to be quiet, hoping to see a rather small animal.

We caught the last ferry across the river, and were soon back in our cool hotel in Port Douglas.

Wednesday, Aug. 29

We headed out for the Atherton tablelands. This would be a lot of wandering and hoping to see something cool. We planned to be spontaneous.

INVISIBLE SPEEDO!
INVISIBLE SPEEDO!

For about the umpteenth time, the low density of people amazed me. We’d drive for miles without seeing another car. Our first stop was the Mareeba Wetlands. It seemed kind of a long drive down the road (which is just before the town of Mareeba if you’re coming from Port Douglas), even though it’s only four miles. That’s probably because I had to coddle a wimpy little Corolla down a graveled road that our Subaru would eat for breakfast. There’s a visitors center, and you have to pay an entry fee. But that gets you water, maps, bathrooms and a friendly staff!

The walking itself was pretty easy. There was a lot of grassland, plus a few lagoons. We were out there for hours, and we saw a lot of smaller termite mounds, but we also ran into a few clusters of kangaroos!. They’re so fast, and it’s almost like they’re invisible. Seen from a distance, they almost look like a termite mound … until they start running.

A weird landscape in the Wetlands.
A weird landscape in the Wetlands.

Next up was The Coffee Works. Sarah and I decided not to take the tour since we didn’t see a point in throwing down $25 a person – we’ve been to Costa Rica, and we know how coffee works. We were more interested in getting stuff to take home to other people who like coffee – and for ourselves! The Highland Pearls were our favorite. And they make some mean desserts there, too … but stay away from those dreaded ANZAC cookies. Not just here, but anywhere!
Throughout this whole day, there was intermittent rain. One hour, the sun is shining. Then, it’s pissing down. Kind of nice, really, and we were prepared.

Crikey, a cassowary!
Crikey, a cassowary! It's posted a day ahead of schedule, but so what?

At Mareeba, it was sunny. By the time we got to Atherton, it was pissing down! We stopped at a few places like The Crystal Cavern…it’s a gem store with a fake cave. Totally not really worth the visit. But I got a cool Qantas Wallabies shirt and had a great talk with the store staff about the State of Origins series. I was really starting to get this whole rugby thing!

From there, we decided to push onto Yungaburra, where Sarah had scored a room for the night at On The Wallaby. Now, this is a somewhat drafty and super-chummy but ridiculously cute backpackers hostel. It ain’t quiet, cute or luxurious. But I defy you to not have fun there. Yeah, you’ll have to bundle up hardcore in the cool weather, and you can’t lock your room and thus can’t leave your valuables in there.

But you can hold a rather docile, even friendly snake and get great directions to everything.dscf0092

The first place we wanted to see was the viewing area for the platypuses. They come out at dusk, so you have a narrow opportunity to see one. We crept around the creek for about 30 minutes before spotting one, and each glimpse was fleeting: There was a lot of foliage in the way, and we were expecting something the size of a beaver … but no! The platypus is really a rather small creature, no bigger than a chihuahua! We also saw a tree kangaroo, but it was too dark by this time to get a good photo. So, then … back to the hostel!

By the way of the Wild Mountain Cellar and Distillery, of course. They make a rather fine selection of wines there, but the standout was The Ruins, a wonderful port that is nearly life-altering. Apparently, the grapes were growing when there was a huge bush fire. The smoke permeated the grapes, and you can taste it in the port. It has a very heavy alcohol smell, and you wouldn’t think it would be good. But it’s actually really spectacular. The label is also great … the tagline for the distillery is “The True Taste of the Australian Bush.” We still giggle a lot over that. We took a bottle of that home and shared it with some of our friends.

Afterward, we ambled to a local jeweler that was next door. They did amazing work with opal. Sarah picked up a really awesome pair of opal earrings. I wish I could remember the name of the place; the good news is, you can find it just a few steps away from the Wild Mountain Cellar and Distillery.

We were kind of in a pickle about dinner after that. There’s really not much in Yungaburra, so we decided to join the rest of the backpackers for the communal (and cheap) hostel dinner. Pretty healthy stuff … lots of vegetables, some steak, mashed potatoes – everything you need!

It was plenty chilly, so I decided to shower in the morning. We closed every possible window in our room and dove under the blankets.