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Travelling north again - 4500km through Far North Queensland, and back...

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TRAVELLING NORTH AGAIN – mostly easy riding on a long and winding road…

Part 1 - setting the scene

I like to try to get away for a decent trip about mid-year to head north into warmer climes – at least, that’s the excuse – but life got in the way in 2019 and it was not until much later than usual that I managed it.   This year’s ride was a bit shorter – and much later – than I’d have liked, but the 13-day/ 4543km/ 2726 mi round trip in mid-to-late October was still very pleasant indeed, with no untoward incidents and no bike trouble.

Not for the first time I aimed for the tiny, remote coastal town of Cooktown in Far North Queensland.   The town is named – long after the event – for British maritime explorer, cartographer, and seafarer extraordinaire Captain James Cook, RN.   The plan, such as it was, called for travelling inland on much of the way north, then meandering south along the coast on the way home.   On various BMW Boxer twins – Roadsters and GSs – I had often ridden these roads before, so they were pretty familiar to me, but that didn’t lessen the enjoyment of just being on the open road with no tight time-frame or specific programme to follow.   And I was again travelling solo… much preferred, unless with Mrs Wordsmith as in the past.

Cooktown is a tiny town on the Coral Sea coast in Far North Queensland, with a population of only about 2600, by road about 330km/ 200mi north of Cairns and a whisker more than 2000km/ 1200mi north of my home in Brisbane as the kookaburra flies.   Somewhat further by motorcycle…

Rather than give a day-by-day account I thought I’d write a few hopefully interesting and/or different points about places and events along the way.   Bear with me if it’s rather disjointed – I’m scribbling for my own and other Traceristas’ pleasure (I hope!), not for a Pulitzer Prize!

First off, my home State of Queensland needs to be put into perspective.   It’s huge – eight x the size of the UK, three x the size of France, and almost three x the size of Texas.   That’s just Queensland, not Australia as a whole, so any travel from one end of the State to the other is going to cover a lot of territory!  

The maps below show the ride north to Cooktown, and the ride south and homewards.     The inland route north, at 2298km/1379mi was just a fraction longer than the 2245km/1347mi southward coastal ride.  

Normally I’d ride up the Brisbane Valley Hwy to start my inland route to points north, but as I’ve done that road to death I decided initially to hasten up the parallel main coast road, the M1 Bruce Hwy, for the first ~200km/120mi to Gympie before then heading inland, so as to be in the slightly warmer coastal strip to start the journey.   Quick, but just another busy multi-lane highway.  

The Bruce Hwy is the main interstate coastal route from Brisbane to Cairns, Queensland’s northernmost town of any size, and my jumping-off point for Cooktown.   It is undeniably quicker than my meandering inland route, but countering that it’s also undeniably boring at times, while the inland ride over sometimes quite ordinary roads and through small country towns is somewhat more challenging and decidedly satisfying from a rider’s point of view.

For my Aussie friends, the chosen route heading north was as follows: bold indicates overnight stops: 

·          Home to Monto on the Bruce, Wide Bay, and Burnett Hwy - 520km

·         to Emerald on the Burnett and Capricorn Hwy - 456km

·         to Charters Towers on the Gregory Developmental Road – 488km

·         to Cairns via Townsville on the Flinders and then Bruce Hwy – 485km

·         to Cooktown on the Captain Cook Hwy and Mulligan Hwy – 349km

Part 2 - the roads more travelled…

I left home in mid-October, the middle month of Spring.   The past winter had been both the driest and warmest in the 155 years that records have been kept, but my later-than-planned departure meant some rain, high temperatures at times, and some humidity, so against expectations my wet-weather jacket remained close at hand and was used on a handful of occasions.

Very unexpectedly, on the morning of my second day on the road the small inland town of Monto was enveloped in thick mist or fog.   Rarely seen here, but I delayed my early departure as I knew the road ahead was quite twisty, undulating, and mildly challenging, so it was helpful to be able to see the highway.

Very strong winds – typical for this time of year – seemed throughout the trip to always be in my face, or from the side, pushing me around quite a lot, which with my gnat-like upper-body strength I found quite tiring at times.   

In Cooktown itself and along the tropical north coast temperatures were up to 32°C/ 90°F, and throughout the trip I wore only shorts and polo shirts when off the bike.   While riding, the highest temperature reached 36ºC/ 97ºF down the east coast on my way home.

The longest day’s ride was 585km/ 351mi on the first day of the return leg, as I took a detour to view an impressive wind-farm near Atherton.   On very mixed road surfaces that covered just about every sort of surface you could imagine the recently re-vamped suspension with K-Tech components was brilliant.   Unfortunately, I hadn’t received the new BAGSTER seat by the time I set out on this trip – it arrived while I was away - but the stock GT seat was adequate for the journey.

On my second day on the road, heading for Emerald, I had a sudden moment of déjà vu, recalling that I’d been past there before, and had taken a photo in that very spot, backgrounded by the spectacular scenery of the Minerva Hills National Park.   That photo later appeared on the cover of the local BMW Club magazine, showing my BMW R1200 R Roadster there in September 2013 – where did all those years go since then? 

 Part 3 - places to lay my head…

In the past I’ve mostly been happy to take pot luck with accommodation as I found that gave me great flexibility, but this time I booked ahead for much of the journey, using the Booking.com website.   Given the unpredictability of motorcycle touring, the ability to cancel bookings without loss within a day or two of the intended arrival dates is quite a comfort, as is the ‘pay on arrival’ procedure.   The average price paid per night was $106, with a couple of places including a light but adequate breakfast.

Mainly I stayed in basic but perfectly decent three-or four-star budget-priced motels, although I did splash out a bit at Airlie Beach, taking a lovely upper-level room for two nights in a posh four-star apartment building overlooking the harbour, and with lovely ocean views.  

Mostly I had only one overnight stop at the various places, but I’d included three nights in Cooktown, and the two nights in Airlie Beach in the beautiful Whitsundays on the ride back home.   I figured that I was unlikely to be in either of these pleasant places again, so I had to make the most of it.

Riding north at about 25km from Cairns I called into Palm Cove, as it required a detour of only a few hundred metres.    Palm Cove is a lovely tranquil seaside village where my wife and I have spent many a happy holiday, and there, with plenty of time to get to Cooktown, I enjoyed a nice bacon ‘n’ egg and English Breakfast tea at an outdoor coffee shop, sitting outside right opposite the beach.   

I’ve never regarded Cairns as much of a place - it’s a pretty transient touristy town, and doesn’t even have a beach, just mangroves and mud-flats – but it is a good spot to park for few days while exploring the Atherton Tablelands, Kuranda, the Great Barrier Reef, Cape York, Cape Tribulation, the Daintree, and other more interesting places close at hand in Far North Queensland.

Part 4 - about Cooktown...

There’s only one road, the Mulligan Hwy, in and out of my destination, Cooktown, so I had to ride a short section of about 220km/ 130mi twice, up and back, but I never mind that as I reckon it’s always worth seeing the countryside from the other side of the road!

This was possibly the easiest ride on this trip, the stretch of the Mulligan Hwy north from Mount Molloy towards Cooktown with its numerous creek-crossing bridges being fully completed only as recently as 2006.   It’s a joy for the motorcyclist, well-surfaced with wide-open sweeping bends and very little traffic in any direction.  

I’ve visited Cooktown many times, the first time almost exactly 20 years ago.   Then, with my wife riding alongside me on her Suzuki Bandit 600 and me on my BMW R1100R boxer twin, we rode from our then-home of Melbourne ~3600km/ 2200mi to Cairns, parked the bikes in a storage facility there, and took a short light-aircraft flight up to Cooktown for a few days.   We have both revisited many times, but in all those twenty years hardly a blade of grass in Cooktown has changed!  

It’s a sleepy little town, if not actually comatose, but it’s different, and for unknown reason appeals to me, hence my return.   Nowadays Cooktown is a pretty run-down town, which many might describe as a ‘nothing’ sort-of place.   Frankly, I’d agree, but it exerts a strange pull on me.  

As noted earlier, the town’s name comes from the arrival of Captain James Cook, RN, at the mouth of the Endeavour River – named after Cook’s ship – in July 1770.   Shortly after he ‘claimed’ the continent in the name of the English king of the time.   The ship had been damaged on coral reefs and was in grave danger of sinking until Cook careened it at the river mouth, where he and his crew spent seven weeks repairing the damage and doing some local exploring.   Cook was a brilliant cartographer, so the site was easily identified years after his departure, although all traces of his enforced stay there would have long disappeared.

Reaching Cooktown after the enjoyable 349km/ 209mi ride north from Cairns along the Mulligan Hwy after crossing the Great Dividing Range, I had three comfortable nights in the pleasant and inexpensive Seaview Motel, where I’d stayed several times before.   It’s right at the mouth of the Endeavour River, with great views.   The owners have always been very obliging and again allowed me to take the bike behind the property and park it under cover in a large laundry shed, out of sight of prying eyes and wandering fingers.

One of the reasons for this trip was again to visit the excellent if (from memory) slightly-dated James Cook Museum – no immersive displays or interpretive exhibits here – and again acquaint myself with Cooktown’s fascinating history as a gold-rush town back in the 1870s.   But alas – the museum was closed until mid-2020, being restored and repaired ready for the 200th anniversary commemoration and celebrations.   Just my luck – but there is another smaller and just as interesting museum in town, run by the local Historical Society, so this satisfied me.  

Maybe it’s just that it’s at the end of the road, even though it’s another tough and very unforgiving 830km/ 500mi dirt-track – strictly by 4WD only – to the northernmost tip of Australia, but the journey is often more important than the destination, and I always enjoy visiting Cooktown.   I doubt I’ll ever do so again, so I’m pleased that this worked out.   This was my third or fourth ride along the Mulligan Hwy, and I really looked forward to it.   It ends at Cooktown, which is where the tarmac runs out on this eastern side of Australia, so that was it for me too. 

For my Aussie chums here – and anybody lucky enough to be visiting Australia – the Captain Cook Hwy north of Cairns runs 87km/ 52mi to Port Douglas and beyond, and simply has to be on your bucket list.   It offers unsurpassed sweeping ocean views and some mildly-challenging twist and turns.   And at times the motorcyclist is so close to the beach that it seems almost possible to reach out and touch the sea or the sand!  

Part 5 - lots of scenery…

Scenery inland along the way north – and there was lots of it – was sometimes pretty uninteresting to the point of being almost boring, but occasionally it was spectacular.   The tropical savannah grasslands of the interior were parched and dry, this being before the start of the tropical wet season in northern Australia, and little greenery was to be seen until on my ride south I reached the elevated temperate country of the Atherton Tablelands, famed for its dairy products, tea, marijuana, and coffee-growing activities.

I love our sunburned country, but in truth much of the outback interior cannot be called attractive.   It’s not easy not being green.   But small coastal towns fringing the Great Barrier Reef such as Cooktown itself, Palm Cove, Mission Beach, Airlie Beach in the Whitsundays, and others more than made up for the slight monotony of some of the inland riding.

Heading south my route home was as follows, bold again showing overnight stops:

.        Cooktown to Cardwell via the Atherton Tablelands on the Mulligan Hwy, Gillies Hwy, and Bruce Hwy, by-passing Cairns – 585km

·         to Airlie Beach on the Bruce Hwy – 478km

·         to Rockhampton on the Bruce Hwy – 459km

·         to Bargara Beach on the Bruce Hwy - 304km

·         finally – home to Redland Bay on the Bruce Hwy – 419km.

Heading south and homewards from Cooktown after my very pleasant break there, and mighty glad that I’d made the effort, I rode downhill on the Gillies Range Hwy from the lush Atherton Tablelands to the coast at Innisfail, on one of those 99-hairpin-bends-in-10km-of-road challenges.   Technique – point, squirt, brake, turn, repeat many times!   An internet note tells that it actually has 263 bends, and rises to an 800m elevation in spectacular scenery.

                                      gillies-range-road.jpg?w=610 Gillies Range Road

After a one-night stay at Cardwell, right on the ocean, another day’s easy ride took me to Airlie Beach.   There, I had another two nights and a full day off the bike at this small, relaxed laid-back Whitsundays township, Airlie being another much-visited spot that we always enjoy.  

Again, this was full of young, mainly European, backpackers soaking up the sun and taking boat-trips out to the islands and the Great Barrier Reef.   Many years ago I skippered a bare-boat yacht charter around some of the Whitsunday islands with my wife and some friends – we had a great time and still talk about it, with many laughs, whenever we meet up.

Sights along the way were many and varied.   Travelling north a small fleet-footed deer kept pace with me for many metres along the roadside, and I later had the privilege of seeing up close a cassowary near Mission Beach on the way home, these large reclusive flightless birds being both rarely seen and sadly endangered.

Less happily, around Cooktown a few large dead black pigs littered the roadside, and sadly all along the journey there were as usual many dead kangaroos and wallabies.   I know that we have kangaroos in plague proportions, but they are pretty animals and do no harm.   I always feel saddened that they meet their end in this way, even though I know that for every dead one there are thousands more hopping around ‘out there’. 

After some overnight rain ‘roos collect at the roadside verges to lap-up precious moisture, and this is where many meet their end.

                                 image.png.7e1adff6eba45464d8173fd6b99e484f.png      

One unwanted sight affected me as, riding quite slowly, I saw a small cow – clearly quite young – standing guard over her dead calf that was lying at her feet bedside the road, doubtless having been hit by a passing vehicle.   I’m not unduly soft, but I must say I felt a very strong and visceral pang of sadness at this unhappy sight.

Equally sad were the many ‘memorials’ of flowers and crosses placed alongside the road where traffic accidents clearly caused one or more deaths at the spot.

Along the Mulligan Hwy, not far from Cooktown, are the so-called Black Mountains, actually large once-volcanic hills made up of jumbled-up black rocks, some the size of a shoe-box, others the size of houses.   Legend has it that horses, mobs of cattle and occasionally humans have entered some of the many caves there, never to be seen again.   The Black Mountains are also home to several species of lizards and other small animals found nowhere else on earth.   It’s a strange and slightly eerie place, and one of special cultural significance to local Indigenous people.

The smell of the open road was ever-present in one form or another.   Passing roadkill along the way always brought with it the immediate foul and unforgettable stench of rotting flesh, and even if the carcass was hidden in the grass verge its presence was unmistakable.   I don’t know if car drivers detect this, but it’s unavoidable to a biker on the road.

Far, far more pleasant was the sweetish aroma in the air when passing near a sugar-mill, sugar being a huge industry in rural Queensland and the cane-harvest being in full swing as I rode through.   The heady mix of tobacco, syrup, molasses and vanilla perfumes was – again – unmistakable, and as I have remarked before, it should be bottled.

Part 6 - of luggage and ATGATT…

I had agonised over what to wear, conscious of the fact that away from the coast early mornings in the tropics can be pretty chilly, while the days warm-up quite quickly.   I didn’t want to be too hot when that happened if wearing a heavy, bulky jacket, but I hate being cold, whether riding the bike or walking my dog,   

The wisdom of Solomon eventually prevailed, albeit with fingers crossed.  I chose to wear my summer-weight mesh jacket, but I also carried along a very thin but warm ‘folds-up-into-nothing’ silk jacket that could be quickly donned if needed.   Happily, at no time did I need the extra layer, but it was nice having it handy, along with a two-piece wet-weather suit in case of need.

As far as luggage is concerned, I learned how to pack very, very light a long time ago, this time carrying the two OE panniers and a small 30L top-box as well.   The top-box wasn’t strictly necessary as I could have crammed everything into the panniers, for when travelling by motorcycle less is very definitely more, but it worked out well enough.   

Space on Tracers is very sparse when it comes to carrying a few tools.   I utilised the awkwardly-shaped but useful space inside the two ‘nacelles’, one each side, carrying my puncture repair kit in one and a few basic tools in the other.   These items were contained in zip-up plastic sleeves – actually olde-worlde pencil-cases – to keep them secure and minimise rattling-around damage.   I also carried in the top-box a small electric tyre-pump to supplement the puncture kit, happily not required.

My packed panniers weighed-in at 8.8kg and 9.0kg respectively: empty, each weighs about 5kg.   The top-box and contents weighed-in at 6.2kg.   

Average temps at this time of the year in coastal Far North Queensland are about 21°C/ 70°F overnight and 29°C/ 84°F during the day, but on the inland part of the journey overnight and early morning temps can drop to well below 10°C/ 50°F, so the gear I took seemed a good choice, and it worked well for me.   And as it turned out the full-on two-piece wet-weather gear was not needed, although I did stop roadside twice to don the jacket as heavy showers moved in temporarily.     

Part 7 – about the Tracer 900 GT.

It’s my firm view that this is one of the very best sports-touring bikes on the market, at any price.   I also still consider it to be very much oriented towards the sport end of the spectrum, although some important changes when the GT was introduced have moved the model a little more towards the touring function.   The superb CP3 engine is the cherry on top of the icing on the cake: it just seems to want to go and go and keep on going, purring away under the rider like a smooth-as-a-turbine sewing machine, although rather more powerful.   I have a feeling, and I've said this before, that if on-the-road refuelling could be achieved it would carry rider and luggage around the globe at least a few times.   On the journey oil level, coolant level, and tyre-pressures were routinely checked - no oil, fluid, or air had to be added.   Remarkable!

Here in Australia, very few Tracers of any vintage are seen – I did see one, maybe two GTs on this ride, but never more than a handful of Gen1 Tracers in all the five or so years they have been around.   It baffles me, for at about AUD$18,000 with functional hard panniers included the GT represents outstanding value-for-money, IMHO.

Some enhancements made in the GT include a longer swing-arm for increased stability, or so I read, a TFT display screen with enough functions, but not too many, and cruise-control.   This latter function alone is worth the increased cost over earlier Tracer models – I used it a great deal on this long trip, and it saved me a lot of arm and shoulder ache.   Easy, almost intuitive to use, readily accessible by thumb when needed, and perfectly reliable, and I now would not be without it.

I could suggest some improvements to make the GT even more touring-focussed – an overdrive top gear would be useful, as would a slightly larger fuel tank (say 20L), and belt-drive, but I quibble - and it’s not going to happen anyway!  

So I return to my main thought that this GT is easily one of the very best sports-touring bikes around.

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Finally, I’ll post this trip tale now with a couple of past archive pix of mine, while I await the return of my left-behind camera, at which time I’ll post some more pix from this particular trip.   Enjoy…

 

IMG_1940.JPG heading north 

P1000075.JPG wind-farm

P1000555.JPG made it!

P1020066.JPG roadside memorial

P1020053.JPG Cooktown motel

P1000547.JPG Palm Cove morning

P1020937.JPG Airlie Beach

IMG_1941.JPG heading south 

Edited by wordsmith
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Wordsmith - a '39 model; bike - a 2019 Tracer 900 GT, Midnight Black and with many farklings.   Redland Bay, SE Queensland, Australia.

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Wonderful!  Looks like a beautiful trip!

 

I'll agree - here, too, Tracers are very much rare machines.  Lots of  BMW 1200gs's, and *LOTS* of misc ADV bikes used in purely on-road configurations.  It surprises me, as the Tracer is very much a touring machine of the adv-but-on-road-only vintage, with instead of offroad farkle being much more sport oriented.  Yet you see lots of Tigers, KTM Adventures, and Africa Twins that never leave asphalt. 

Given the GT's value and capabilities, these just baffles me.  During my last 2500km loop through the US, I saw my first Tracer in the wild - and it remains the *only* one I've seen out and about.  

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Superb write up Wordsmith...Looking forward to more photos. 

Incidentally,  on our uk news the other day, no more climbing the big red rock.  Now that would make a great photo  gt in foreground. 🤔

Edited by Dodgy Knees

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7 hours ago, Dodgy Knees said:

Incidentally,  on our uk news the other day, no more climbing the big red rock.  Now that would make a great photo  gt in foreground. 🤔

The Big Red Rock was a bit out of my way!


Wordsmith - a '39 model; bike - a 2019 Tracer 900 GT, Midnight Black and with many farklings.   Redland Bay, SE Queensland, Australia.

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13 hours ago, Dodgy Knees said:

Incidentally,  on our uk news the other day, no more climbing the big red rock.  Now that would make a great photo  gt in foreground. 🤔

Here's a bit of trivia that points up just what a vast country this is.   I live on the east coast.   Uluru (Big Red Rock) is almost due west of me, marginally to the NW, in the Red Centre.   Road distance is 3343km, and that's not even half-way across Oz!

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Wordsmith - a '39 model; bike - a 2019 Tracer 900 GT, Midnight Black and with many farklings.   Redland Bay, SE Queensland, Australia.

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11 hours ago, wordsmith said:

Here's a bit of trivia that points up just what a vast country this is.   I live on the east coast.   Uluru (Big Red Rock) is almost due west of me, marginally to the NW, in the Red Centre.   Road distance is 3343km, and that's not even half-way across Oz!

Heh the standard maps about tend to be very misleading on how big Australia actually is.  I mean, it's still only 3/4's the size of Canada, but that's still much larger than I ever really think of it.  I suppose it depends on who you're talking to, though - to someone living in Europe, say, I imagine Australia would seem incredibly vast.  For us North American folks, though, it's just country sized :)

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12 hours ago, wordsmith said:

Here's a bit of trivia that points up just what a vast country this is.   I live on the east coast.   Uluru (Big Red Rock) is almost due west of me, marginally to the NW, in the Red Centre.   Road distance is 3343km, and that's not even half-way across Oz!

Well after 3343km your seat will be perfectly broken in, even Goldilocks would approve 😁

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Wordy, well done. Sounds like a great trip.

As an aside I have a copy of "The Dig Tree" which reflects on the, politics and physical effort, of the early "adventurers" going from the South coast to the North coast. I have read it three times and will no doubt read it again.

Crossing Australia through the centre certainly was/is not for the faint hearted.

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Well Wordy... looks like your next big trip is coming together. Might need a month this time.  👍

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 Great write-up Wordsmith and thanks for taking me along! I'm giving you five  🦘🦘🦘🦘🦘

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He who dies with the most toys wins.

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On 11/1/2019 at 4:03 AM, flyfifer said:

Wordy, well done. Sounds like a great trip.

As an aside I have a copy of "The Dig Tree" which reflects on the, politics and physical effort, of the early "adventurers" going from the South coast to the North coast. I have read it three times and will no doubt read it again.

Crossing Australia through the centre certainly was/is not for the faint hearted.

It surely was not, flyfifer, and I dips me lid to those who did it.   This is an extremely harsh and hard country, not all sun, sand, sea and surf as the tourism industry would have you believe!   And every time I get into it I marvel at the early pioneers who, with little more than axes and large hand-saws literally cut their way through, built homes, settled the land, raised kids (the women had it even tougher than the Blokes), and generally half-tamed this vast land.  Crossing Australia north to south (or indeed east to west) is most definitely not for the faint-hearted, I agree.

Edited by wordsmith
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Wordsmith - a '39 model; bike - a 2019 Tracer 900 GT, Midnight Black and with many farklings.   Redland Bay, SE Queensland, Australia.

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2 hours ago, Dodgy Knees said:

Well Wordy... looks like your next big trip is coming together. Might need a month this time.  👍

I took several weeks to do a circumnavigation of Oz many years ago by GS, DK.   Couldn't do that now!


Wordsmith - a '39 model; bike - a 2019 Tracer 900 GT, Midnight Black and with many farklings.   Redland Bay, SE Queensland, Australia.

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Some more pix from my now-returned left-behind camera - that's all folks!

P1050972.JPG a misty morning in Monto

P1050977.JPG long and not-so winding roads

P1050992.JPG Minerva Hills NP, October 2019

P1060044.JPG deja vu six years earlier - 2013

P1050993.JPG nice motel pool in Cairns

P1050999.JPG Black Mountain near Cooktown

P1060005.JPG nice Seaview Motel, Cooktown

P1060007.JPG wharf at Cooktown

P1060009.JPG statue to Capt James Cook

P1060010.JPG sunset over the Endeavour River

P1060013.JPG all this way for nothing!

P1060014.JPG the (closed) museum, once a convent

P1060021.JPG careening the Endeavour for repairs

P1060027.JPG sugar, sugar everywhere

P1060031.JPG how nice to be given a sainthood!

Edited by wordsmith
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Wordsmith - a '39 model; bike - a 2019 Tracer 900 GT, Midnight Black and with many farklings.   Redland Bay, SE Queensland, Australia.

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