It had always been our intention to leave Brisbane the day Tropical Cyclone Marcia crossed the Queensland coast north of Rockhampton, 700 kilometres north of the state capital. My friend had expressed a wish to spend his birthday in Byron. Who wouldn't?
We'd known for days that Marcia was on her way, but on Thursday the storm had intensified, from a category 1 to a category 4, surprisingly and alarmingly quickly. It was predicted to veer south after landfall – which occurred at 8 am on Friday 20 February – and Brisbane was in its path to New South Wales.
In the meantime, a trough was already bringing heavy rainfall to Southeast Queensland. I instinctively felt we should leave town sooner than originally planned, at 5 pm. There were already warnings not to travel unless it was essential. I was concerned there would be localised flooding and road closures; and once the wind strengthened, flying branches might be a hazard. Local Butcherbirds were putting the word about.
We left at about 1.30. The motorway wasn't much fun: truck drivers seemed intent on the maximum speed despite poor visibility. The worst of the rain had cleared by the bottom of the Gold Coast, however, and traffic was light for a Friday afternoon.
Byron was ominously grey, but beautifully wild, of course.
By evening, the wind was strong and the rain heavy. We had our own little cabin in town and, having brought food and wine supplies with us, we pulled up the drawbridge.
Marcia continued to confound weather forecasters. Within 150 kilometres south of Rockhampton she'd been downgraded to a tropical low, and by Saturday arvo she'd crossed back over the ocean, avoiding Brisbane, which was drenched but not battered. Our lazy Saturday in Byron was bright and showery. The ex-cyclone was travelling south off the northern New South Wales coast, so we had another wild night and a squally Sunday.
We decided to walk up to Cape Byron Lighthouse to blow the cobwebs away. The surf was so big at Wategos there was no beach.
The weather became more settled – warmer and sunnier – over the next three days. Marcia was long gone, but her effects were still being felt.
On our last full day in Byron, we drove to what we call Cockerel Beach. (We once saw there the finest rooster you ever did see: magnificent plumage he had.) It's at the northern end of Seven Mile Beach, which extends from Broken Head to Lennox Head. You get there by driving down the unsealed Seven Mile Beach Road, off Broken Head Reserve Road.
My friend fancied a swim: I still had recent shark attacks in mind. Imagine our dismay when we saw the state of this beautiful shoreline.
This unattractive sea foam occurred up and down the east coast under Marcia's influence. It forms from impurities in the ocean – bits of dead plants and decomposing fish, seaweed excretions, algae, and naturally occurring chemicals and salts –but also pollution and sewage from storm water runoff on land. These impurities are agitated in rough seas, and adhere to bubbles created by the action of powerful waves. We had seen footage of people, especially children, playing in the stuff, but it's not a good idea. The foam conceals rocks – and sea snakes, who are partial to it.
We didn't linger, returning to Broken Head Beach, which had less foam but enough to deter me from going anywhere near the water.
Our route back to Brisbane on Wednesday was via the Richmond Range, inland from Lismore and Casino, off the Bruxner Highway. I had phoned the National Park's office the day before to check if the Cambridge Plateau Scenic Drive was open. I was told it was, for 4WDs only.
I know from previous experience that disappointment is only a ranger's daily assessment away. And I had a feeling on this day that we would reach the turn-off to the Scenic Drive and our plan would be thwarted. Following heavy rain, national parks people and locals alike don't want off-roaders churning up their unsealed tracks. There is a safety issue, too, of course, but inconsiderate visitors who make track work have to be discouraged.
On seeing the 'road closed' sign, I rang the Park's office again and was put through to a ranger this time. I needed an alternative route. We took the Clarence Way, through open valley rather than along forested plateau, via Bottle Creek. There were always going to be interesting distractions, and I tried to put out of my mind the far-ranging vistas we'd missed.
The National Park warden had advised us to stick to open country, which dries out much faster than dense forest. Before we reached Bonalbo, however, we turned off onto Peacock Creek Road which climbed the Richmond Range in fairly open woodland. This was Tink Tink (Bell Miner) country. Usually difficult to sight in the forest canopy, they were busying all around us when we stopped to listen to their extraordinary calling, and were easier to spot then usual. As we climbed, a striking black and gold Regent Bowerbird flickered across our path. This was a first, although it was unmistakeable. Its range is limited to a narrow band of southeastern Queensland and northeastern New South Wales, so this was quite a prize.
We entered the Richmond Range National Park and soon passed by the northern end of the Scenic Drive that was not meant to be.
As we descended the Range, there was a choice of routes to Kyogle. We chose to go via Toonumbar Dam. Unfortunately, important information that we could have done with at the point of decision-making was not made available until we had dawdled by the water and then tried to continue on our way.
We could return to the junction or risk crossing a spillway with swiftly moving, though not deep, water at its centre point. 'If it's flooded, forget it', broadcast hourly by the nation's emergency broadcaster (the ABC) as Marcia bore down on Yeppoon, came to mind. We went back; then via Ettrick, rather than Eden Creek, to Kyogle.
It was 67 kilometres to Murwillumbah, whence we followed the mighty Tweed to the Pacific Motorway. We stopped briefly and caught a lovely view back to Mount Warning.