Australia Day 14- Of Rainforests and Rental Cars

The past two and a half days I’ve been making my way in a rental car around the Atherton Tablelands, a plateau just inland from Cairns and the Northern Australia coast. It’s an interesting mix of farmlands and tropical rainforest. Admittedly, the former was created by clear cutting large chunks of the latter, but there’s a much greater emphasis on preservation and sustainability than there was a hundred years ago. Some sections of forest have even been re-planted so that the wildlife have corridors to cross between different areas of forest, and in places where the forest is cut by roads, rope bridges have been built between the trees on either side to allow small wildlife, like possums, to cross. This has apparently worked, and road kills are way down.

Still, not all was well. From my first day, I saw the effects of a years-long drought that has gripped the entire country; the air was hazy with dust from a dust storm system that has affected Sydney badly and made worldwide news. And even though I was almost 2000 miles north of Sydney, the same system was in evidence here. It wasn’t nearly as bad, but it did mean the horizon faded into a white haze in every single scenic picture I took.

Which was okay, since the most interesting stuff was usually up close. In the farmlands, brahman cows dotted the landscape, and hung out by the fence with peaceful looks (really, though, when do you see a cow without a peaceful look? Other than a bullfighting ring, that is), munching on grass contentedly. The farmlands were punctuated with long stretches of rainforest, and every mile, or so it seemed, there was a turn-off that led down a dirt road to a beautiful scene with a waterfall, the sort of perfectly idyllic jungle picture that made me expect to see Tarzan and Jane splashing in the swimming hole at the bottom.

There were other cool sights around, too. The area used to be very volcanic (the aboriginies even tell stories of when this area was “a land of fire”), and I could see the effects of it. One particularly cool site is the Mt. Hypipamee Crater (aboriginal names are always fun… for example, Wooroonooran National Park), which isn’t really a crater at all, but a site where volcanic gas exploded out of the ground. The result is a massive hole about 200 feet wide and 450 feet deep, the bottom 250 of which is submerged in water. It’s particularly fun to throw a rock down it, since the resulting splash will echo up the crater walls with a reverberation effect that makes it sound almost like a gunshot.

Each little town I drove through has its own character, and it was striking how much rural Australia is like rural America, except with land rovers instead of pickup trucks, patches of tropical rainforest instead of patches of temperate forest, and with the cars racing down the wrong side of the road (on purpose, that is).

Which brings me to the whole driving-on-the-wrong-side-road thing. Australians, like the British, drive on the left-hand side. I had never done this before (I’ve avoided driving so far on my trips to Britain), and so was mildly nervous… luckily, I had the constant reminder of the steering wheel being on the other side (the “right” side, as a British tourist pointed out to me) of the car. I never ended up on the wrong side of the road, well, except for one or two times, but seeing a car barreling toward me quickly clued me in that something was amiss.

Actually, those incidents weren’t even caused by the difference in which side of the road you drive on; rather, they were caused by the fact that the Aussies have apparently not discovered yellow road paint. This means a dashed white line down the road can mean either “feel free to switch lanes whenever you like” or “okay, you can pass that slow-moving car in front of you, but I definitely wouldn’t hang out there unless you have a fondness for 200 km/hr collisions” (or, to use American parlance, “ouch”). More embarrassing than ending up on the wrong side of the road was the time I ended up on a bike path, so I probably shouldn’t even mention that.

It’s not just the steering wheel that switches sides in an Australian car; it’s everything. The dashboard is a mirror image. So in an American car, the turn signals are controlled by the stick to the left of the steering wheel, in an Australian car, it’s the stick to the right. This means pretty much every time I wanted to turn I ended up with the windshield wipers on. And of course the entire console (radio, A/C, etc), had to be operated with the left hand instead of the right, which might be great for lefties, but is sort of annoying for the other 90% of the population.

And I won’t even count the number of times I went to get in the car and found myself staring at the passenger seat. If there were people around, I would have to cover for my mistake by pretending to fix something on the passenger side, then, done with that, walk around and get in the driver’s side.

All in all, though, it was a fun adventure, and the Tablelands were actually great for driving. Lots of interesting stops over a fairly wide area, and beautiful scenery that would have been even more beautiful if not for the constant dust storm. My final driving adventure, which took me back to Cairns Airport this morning, was a winding mountain road back down off the plateau, which involved lots of steering around hairpin turns, trying to not get distracted by the view or plowed into by the cars racing up the hill, all the while trying to keep the car successfully in the “wrong” lane. Fun times.

To make matters more interesting, the rental company had given me a Ford Falcon, which, ignoring all issues with the left side of the road, is a much wider car than I’m used to, so I was constantly getting friendly with the little bumps on the side of the road as I edged away from the middle dividing line. It’s probably good I didn’t have any passengers, as they would have bailed out from fear halfway down.. and it was a fairly short trip from the passenger side over the edge of the mountain.

Nevertheless, both my car and I survived without a scratch. If I could say one thing to the Aussies about driving, it would be: if you want to drive on the left, be my guest, but seriously… yellow road paint. Try it. You’ll like it, I promise.