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Highway One – Eastern and Coastal Queensland (North)


Geographically the Northern end of the Great Dividing Range separates the coastal tropics from central Queensland. From a photographic and videographer’s point of view it means tremendous natural beauty and in all directions. On both sides of that range the problem can be which direction to point the camera, a really good kind of a problem to have.

Close to the FallsFrom a social and economic point of view it seems to cleave Queensland into two distinct parts.

To the East of the range it is agriculture of crops, the sugar cane industry is nearly all gone, but the farms appear fertile and even thriving.

Cairns has an economy based largely on tourism and to a lesser extent Townsville is the same so that even though this is not peak season the Cairns waterfront is crammed with hundreds of boozy young backpackers. Nonetheless, larger towns aside the real money comes from growing fruit.

To the immediate west of the range it is a completely different story. The central and western rural economy is largely based on cattle and mining. The tourism is still there but it is very much a minor industry.

Mt. Isa for instance is a coal mine which grew into a decent sized town. Situated on the Leichhardt river (like most rivers and creeks it is completely dry this time of year) the spires of the refinery dominate the town and are visible from most places.

Speaking with a bloke named Riff, I put it to him that the Isa was a one economy town. That without the mine it would be wiped off the map. His job was as supply warehouse providing materials for the mine. He immediately agreed. This impression was confirmed by another hard working bloke, Dave, who had to work at the mine in spite of three fractured vertebrae in order to support four children and his unemployed wife. He said, “if that mine closed, this whole town’d be fucked.”

I also spoke with a cattle farmer whose ranch was not far from Charters Towers. That is actually inside the range and about as eastern as the cattle lands seem to get. He had allowed me access to his property in order to film what looked like a fertile grazing plain and his homestead with a lovely, sprawling hill in the background. To me this was just another serene and beautiful place in a land filled with natural beauty. He asked why the hell I wanted to film his property, I told him what a lovely spread he had and suggested it could not be too awful waking up each morning to see that rather stunning vista.

He explained that he barely noticed the view, his concerns were a lot more practical and serious. His few remaining cattle were all near to death from dehydration and his dam was almost empty, the green grasses which I so admired were all newly sprouted.

“A week ago, this place was all red dirt.” His distress was palpable, it was hard to look him in the eye. I kept thinking what bold risk takers these farmers are in the far north, what enormous courage they would need to raise a family in a climate-based business. The drought I had seen to the West of Queensland appeared to almost stop at the NT-QLD border but that was really a complete illusion.

Double Island (Gavin)These amazing, hard working people are the unsung heroes of what is really a pretty fragile local economy. It takes real guts to be a farmer in the Top End.

From the water fountains in the city of Townsville to the dusty world of Mt. Isa and the West of Queensland there are two completely distinct worlds and seeing them both inside a few weeks makes those two worlds seem very odd indeed, as though one world has absolutely nothing to do with the other. Moreover the Great Dividing Range cleaves these two kinds of economy into two distinct regions.

There are parts of central QLD which feel like they could be in Texas – dry river beds, creeks which haven’t seen water in a year… there are a lot of big old crusty looking blokes ten gallon hats, boots and jeans, people there don’t walk if they can mosey – but then there are parts of QLD just a few kilometres to the east of the Range which are so fertile and tropical they remind me of Cambodia’s northern jungle.

It pays to notice that these two distinct parts of QLD with their two different geographies, populations and economies are places which are also at identical latitudes. The Range splits them like a knife cutting through soft butter.

There are severe droughts in the tropics, such a problem are these long spells of dry that it looks like desert land. Only in the West of the Great Dividing Range can you see the droughts as so deadly to the towns and damaging to the security of the people because the other side of the same range it is lush, fertile, the world is largely a green and watery place.

Cold Misty SunriseMost impressive to me of all is the great bananabender cheer. Even (maybe even especially) where people are living with tremendous hardship, at high risk of economic ruin, working without any safety net in place, they remain in magnificent cheer and are very open to answering questions from a sunburnt Sandgroper.

There is also a sense that people born and raised in Queensland will rarely leave it to see other places. The few people I met here in the North who have spent a lot of time out of QLD were all from elsewhere originally. Dave seemed to sum it up best when he said to me, “Yeah I decide to leave Queensland once. Got as far as northern New South Wales before I turned around.”

There is the view of QLDers that they are inward looking, a bit self centred about their state, troppo with the heat, everything begins and ends in QLD and they sometimes seem to do their utmost to cement that impression too. They seem aware that the rest of the country exists but are largely dismissive of it as not being a part of Queensland. There is of course a similarly parochial outlook in WA, that one-eyed view of Aussie living through a parochial prism is nothing like what can be found in QLD however, which seems to neither need nor much want the rest of Australia to exist. They used to call it the Sunshine State seemingly unaware that the West has more direct sunshine to offer, they now call Queensland The Smart State. It’s not so clear why that is the case. Not that the bananabenders are in any way stupid or simple, but the state is no smarter than WA.

The sense of unfettered and almost overbearing pride they have for their state is impossible to miss. It hits the moment you cross the border from the NT. The first petrol station you hit in QLD has a large sign saying, ‘You are now in Queensland. We are three years and half an hour ahead. Please adjust your watch!’

Something about that sign seems almost desperate to impress upon you that you have entered the future. the irony here is that the border town looks like it is from the 1970’s and being three years ahead of the frontier region of the Territory really means being a few centuries behind other parts of the world like Europe.

The Queenslander stake in pride in their state is often funny, admirable but also intentionally annoying. When most locals I meet mention they have been to ‘the West’ they really mean the Western end of QLD, not WA.

One lady I met in Townsville said she’d conceived her son in the South. She meant a southern suburb of Townsville and not Victoria or – god forbid – Tasmania.

IMG_5908As a visitor to the North of QLD you are both welcomed and teased mercilessly, almost pitied for not being a QLDer and it is my own personal experience that the farther into the North you go, once you are north of Cairns especially, the less mercy is shown to visitors and the less welcoming they seem at first. It too is illusion, some of the warmest people begin conversations with some of the sharpest tongues. It is a form of greeting and welcome which takes a bit of getting used to.

From a driver’s point of view the North is some of the most dangerous country to traverse. I have seen a few car wrecks in the last 9000km of driving but half of those were in one stretch between Townsville and Port Douglas. The roads have a lot of hairpin bends, a good example is the Atherton Tablelands where sometimes there are more like one and a half lanes with rock on one side and a thousand foot drop on the other, or along the remarkably scenic Captain Cook Highway which has hairpin bends, high speed and hyper aggressive drivers and regularrockfalls to contend with.

It is impossible to escape the irony of a sign which cautions drivers that they are entering a high risk area for collisions, an overturned car here, a 4WD stuck in a deep ditch there, followed by a sign from the main roads department saying they are making QLD roads safer. Safer? Safer than what? It is the most dangerous country I have yet encountered from a driver’s point of view. Even rest stops come with croc warnings so once you’ve finished driving on dangerous roads for the day, you can rest in a place where you can be eaten by the fauna.

Ahhh Queensland, beautiful one day, a crocodile’s breakfast the next.



Weirdest Seagull in Townsville

Starry Night near Tully QLD


Overtaking Lane on the Mist

Misty Old Hill in the Morning

Hotel Cairns

Ellis Bay

Cairns Esplanade















2 Responses to Highway One – Eastern and Coastal Queensland (North)

  1. Great shots mate, some epic country.

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