DESTINATION: MT SURPRISE, QUEENSLAND
Sitting on an ancient volcano, Mt Surprise is a tiny Gulf savannah town with a fascinating past.
· Kalkani Crater and the Lava Tubes tour
· Savannahlander and Copperfield Gorge tour
· Cattle station tour
· Bedrock Village
· Snake show and other wildlife
· Gem fossicking and local gems
Renowned for its topaz, savannah landscape, gorges and famous volcanic lava tubes, northern Queensland’s Mt Surprise has wonder around every corner.
Situated 315km south-west of Cairns, Mt Surprise is on the Savannah Way and is home to the Bedrock Village Caravan Park and Tours. We hadn’t been to this park since 2005 and, since then, owners Joe and Jo Lockyer have continued to develop their four-star park and still conduct the tours for which they are famous. Bedrock Village is not far from the volcanic Undara Lava Tubes – part of the longest lava flow from a single volcanic crater on earth. Backing onto scenic spring-fed Elizabeth Creek, which is great for relaxing in the company of thousands of butterflies, the property is like an oasis in the dry eucalypt forest.
LAVA TUBES TOUR
The Lockyers run a variety of nature-based tours in the surrounding area, including the nearby lava tubes. There are half-day and full-day tours available and Denyse and I took the full-day tour. We felt it gave us the complete lava tube experience, as we saw a number of tubes which you don’t see on shorter tours and we had more time to appreciate them.
The tours leave from the park office at 8am and the first stop is to walk up and around Kalkani crater. This is a dormant volcano with a perfectly round top and there are great views over the whole of the McBride volcanic province. It is a bit of a climb, but our group of oldies made it without a problem. We then had morning tea with homemade biscuits and banana bread, before walking through three lava tubes, each different in some way. Accessing the tubes involved climbing over rocks holding a rope, so you’ll need to leave extra gear on the bus and just hang a camera around your neck, leaving your hands free to climb.
A three-course lunch was provided at the Undara Resort, before we continued through five other tubes, which were much easier walking.
Barker’s Tube is 600m long, but poor air quality limits access to the end. Several tubes contained water from the late wet season, and some had boardwalks. The Road Tube has wheelchair access and even a chair-lift, meaning almost anyone can see something of this natural wonder. Several tubes had hundreds of small bats clinging to the ceiling, and we saw rocket frogs and moths living in the tubes as well.
Some tubes had vaulted ceilings caused by gas bubbles rising above the lava flow, and there were wonderful colours in others, caused by minerals in seepage water. The sheer size of the tubes, sometimes as high as 20m, is astonishing and you cannot begin to imagine the volume of lava that flowed out of the Undara volcano.
We returned to Bedrock at 6pm, feeling we had really seen the lava tubes.
SAVANNAHLANDER TRAIN AND GORGE TOUR
This is a half-day tour that begins with Bedrock’s coach taking you to the train station when the Savannahlander train arrives from Cairns about midday.
The old rail motor has quite an interesting history, which is explained during the two-hour trip to Einasleigh. At one stop, the guide showed us a greater bower bird’s bower. We also stopped for pictures going over the Junction and Einasleigh rivers, where we spotted two fresh water crocs. We saw several types of wallabies and some brolgas. For those interested in history, this trip travels through volcanic cattle country that was once the centre of copper and gold mining. There is not much at Einasleigh now, but the old pub has an amazing display of miniature houses and furniture in glass cases. It is the only survivor of the nine pubs that were at Einasleigh a century ago. We had time for a drink or an ice cream before continuing on to Copperfield Gorge.
This was a highlight for Denyse and I, and the waterfall was flowing strongly. There are plenty of black bream in this gorge and the water flows through high rocky walls into colourful, tranquil pools. Copperfield Gorge is quite different from other gorges we have seen, but be careful not to get too close to the undermined edges.
We returned to the coach for a tour of the old town, and were interested to hear just how large it was in the mining days. There was 45km of dirt road with several water crossings before we hit
the tar seal on the way home.
Not far from Einasleigh, we stopped at a large, peaceful waterhole to boil the billy for a genuine outback cuppa and home-cooked carrot cake. We also had a look at Jardine’s Lagoon, named after the Jardine brothers who took cattle on a long trek up to Somerset on the peninsula. It is a haven for waterbirds, and also contains water lilies and fresh water crocs. It rained on the way home, and this road became a slippery slide. Di, our guide and coach driver, handled the difficult conditions very well.
Bedrock Village also conducts a tour to a local cattle station, where you can take part in the activities. There is a working dog demonstration, and the owners take you out to a picturesque waterhole. We didn’t have time for the tour, but you have to leave something for the next visit!
Back at the caravan park, the powered sites are large, drive-through and almost all have shade from native trees. There are unpowered sites and air-conditioned, self-contained cabins as well. The park has good quality, but untreated, bore water, which all the locals drink, and we were pleased to be able to re-fill our tank (using our Best filter, just to be sure).
The newly-renovated amenities blocks are a delight to use – there is plenty of hot water and each shower has a separate change room, its own light and they are serviced regularly, ensuring they are fresh and clean. Disabled facilities are also available.
Beside the sparkling pool is a huge fireplace where Joe and others conduct a regular singalong in the evening.
There is also a large undercover camp kitchen where we enjoyed happy hour with other guests, and the staff regularly put on a pizza evening, sausage sizzle or other meals. There are also free gas barbecues, as well as a games/ TV room and nine-hole mini golf course.
The shop carries a range of groceries, gas refills and souvenirs. Joe and son Toby run a mechanical workshop for vehicle servicing, repairs and tyres. Pets are welcome and a pet-minding service is available for those who go on Joe’s tours.
There are concessions for those who stay a week and there is a capped site price for families. This is not commonly seen, but is really appreciated by those travelling with children.
In the town itself, you will find a small general store and service station, another servo, a post office, police station, pub, two gem dealers, cafe, school, rail station and not much else. The cafe advertises that it has the best hamburgers, made "the way they used to be, before they stuffed them up".
Don’t miss seeing Russell’s snake show at Planet Earth Adventures. We first saw him on our trip in 2005, when he met the Savannahlander, and put his black-headed python, Clancy, around Denyse’s neck. It was too early in the tourist season for him to be meeting the train this year, so we looked him up and we were pleased to renew our acquaintance with Clancy, who is now 17 years old and 3m long. He is available for private viewings – just go to Russell’s house.
Mt Surprise is famous for its topaz and other gems and you can drive yourself out to the fossicking area at O’Brien Creek (about 35km) or take an organised tour with all equipment supplied. What a thrill it would be to find one of the rare green topaz.
When in the savannah country, allow plenty of free time in your travel schedule to explore all the special places that only the locals know, and bask in some genuine country hospitality.
- Mt Surprise is 315km south-west of Cairns and 400km north of Charters Towers, Qld.
- Bedrock Village Caravan Park and Tours is rated at four stars and can be contacted by phone on (07) 4062 3193. Otherwise, visit www.bedrockvillage.com.au or email email@example.com
Originally published in Caravan World #512, March 2013.