Sitting on the warm granite slabs looking over the Outback to the cones of dormant volcanoes on the horizon, it was strange to think that we had come to Undara not just for the spectacular landscape in front of us, but what lay beneath it.
We had arrived at the Volcanic Lodge after a four-hour drive: from the steamy rainforest heat, through the temperate Atherton Tablelands, to the dusty red-ochre roads and Eucalyptus forests of the baking Gulf Savannah - a fascinating journey through different climates and landscapes.
The Undara Volcano erupted 190,000 years ago, and lava that had found creeks and dried-up riverbeds flowed through these channels even when the molten surface had cooled and formed a rocky crust. When the eruption finally stopped, lava drained, leaving hollow tubes underneath the land. One of these ran 100 miles from the crater, the longest flow of lava on earth, and tours are available to accessible parts. It was the thought of exploring this geological treasure, and the chance of spending a night in the Outback that drew us to Undara.
We made ourselves comfortable in our tents, and after cooking a meal on the barbecue joined a few other guests around the campfire. The Aboriginal guide who would be leading the morning tour held everyone spellbound with tales of the past. He spoke of his ancestors - their ways of using the seemingly barren land for all their needs, and how they learned about the wildlife around them. It was a special moment, listening to these tales by the crackling fire, surrounded by the immense night: this is how it must have been, we thought, Elders passing on their Dreamtime stories around the fire.
The short walk back to the tents gave the Outback an opportunity to show a nocturnal beauty - the glorious night sky. Disorientated because none of the constellations were recognisable, I spent a magical 20 minutes gazing at millions of stars, with the Milky Way a distinct smoky white trail across the sky. Stars shimmered softly in the still air, the velvety black night silent except for the distant rustling of secret creatures in the bush.
Kookaburras woke us at dawn, and what an alarm call! Almost a cross between human chuckles and the calls of Gibbons, their song echoed in the cool morning, competing with the pure and simple whistle of a magpie. It was early, but I needed to be outside to soak up more of the atmosphere of this fascinating place. A troop of foraging Kangaroos blocked the track to the showers, and even though they seemed unafraid, we had been warned not to approach too closely. Some of the females were carrying "Joeys", baby kangaroos, and one bull Kangaroo stood over 6' tall and looked mean and muscular - a long way from the cuddly creatures often portrayed on television! They would have attacked if they thought their young were in danger.
I turned back, tried to locate the Kookaburras, but found only a flock of noisy red and green Parrots enjoying the early sunshine in the trees.
|Our small group set off at 8 o'clock, grateful already for the air-conditioned mini-bus. The 10-minute ride to the first of the volcanic tubes uses part of the original road made by the white settlers. The past again seems extraordinarily close here; the axe marks on roadside trees made by trailblazers to show the following wagon trains the best routes are still visible. It is a potent reminder that this land was only explored by white settlers 130 years ago, and that there are still discoveries to be made. It's very easy to imagine the hard life these first incomers must have had, driving their cattle, finding water, and clearing pasture in such an unforgiving land.|
After a quick tutorial on the special geology of the area, safety warnings and torch issuing, we set off to walk down into the first cave. Roof-collapses allow entry, and without these, the lava tubes would have remained undiscovered.
|Remnants of the primeval rainforest mask the entrance, and it feels as though we are exploring a lost world as we descend through the trees. The cave is immense; cool, dank, and echoing with the metallic drip of water. Tree roots have found their way through the rock, and are hanging down in their search for moisture. We go deeper into the tunnel, walking on the compacted silt of centuries, looking in awe at the cathedral-like roof 30 feet above.|
The lava flow has left ripples like melted wax as it cooled and solidified, and mineral salts leeching through the rock have formed weird patterns, looking almost like prehistoric cave drawings. The guide shines a powerful light on the deepest recess, and thousands of bats flap past us, their eyes shining in the beams of our torches.
Two hours passed far too quickly - we only had time to visit two tubes on our short tour, and we wished we could have stayed for the full day, but we had other trips planned in Cairns. We were taken back to the lodge, leaving others to carry on their adventures.
Now we were having a long last look from the granite bluff behind the Lodge. During the eruption molten rivers of lava would have surrounded this hill, but now the scene was tranquil - soft red earth, perfect white clouds sailing in a perfect blue sky, and distant horizons.
We reluctantly turned to go, and caught a wonderful view of two wedge-tailed eagles soaring up from below. We watched them wheel and ride the thermals until they were minute specks high in the big sky, and then set off on the long dusty road back to Cairns.
Back in the town I felt unsettled - even after two days Undara had sunk deeply into my spirit. Everywhere now felt unbearably busy; the heat stickier and more oppressive than before. We vowed to return to this land so vast and empty, with such hidden rewards.
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