Ever since our first visit to the Atherton Tablelands, I have been intrigued by the tiny hamlet of Tolga, between Mareeba and Atherton. Growing from a Cobb and Co. staging post at nearby Rocky Creek, Tolga became the centre of both the local peanut industry and the Chinese community’s market gardens. Yes, this area has a rich and largely untold Chinese heritage, as you will discover at Hou Wang Temple and Atherton Chinatown.
Originally called Martintown, Tolga was renamed when the railway from Mareeba reached it. ‘Tolga’ means ‘red mud’ in the local Aboriginal language. It’s no New York or London, let’s be honest. You could almost blink and miss it if you were driving too fast, and many passing tourists would wonder where the population of 1500 are all hiding.
There’s not much to Tolga at first glance; a woodworks gallery, a couple of local shops, the iconic roadside fruit stall known as The Humpy and a little further up the road a gigantic peanut by another fruit stall, this one long-vacant. But in the two years we have been living in Cairns (yes, time flies when you’re having fun!) the giant peanut has been given a new lease on life - and a new body - as ‘The Peanut Place’, The Humpy is now home to ‘Nutworld’ , and Tolga Woodworks now serves delicious snacks and meals in their ‘Gallery Cafe’. Tolga is now a compulsory stop on the popular Atherton Tablelands ‘Food Trail’.
As you leave Tolga heading south, a short strecth of rainforest - noticably different to the surrounding pasture and woodlands - shrouds the Kennedy Highway. This is known as the Tolga Scrub, and holds significance as one of the last remaining fragments of the critically endangered Mabi rainforest on the Atherton Tablelands. Once covering vast areas of the Tablelands north and west of Malanda, 98% of Mabi rainforest has been lost to clearing, and several endemic plant species are now listed as ‘critically endangered’.
Mabi is characterised by the presence of scattered, mainly deciduous emergent trees up to 45m tall, heavy leaf fall during times of moisture stress and a well-developed shrub layer. It is the most drought resistant type of rainforest in Australia. The Tolga Scrub is critical habitat for flying foxes. Spectacled flying foxes are usually at the Tolga Scrub, though the numbers will vary throughout the year, being least in winter. It is a very important maternity camp for them, and is sometimes the only maternity camp on the Tablelands. Census counts in November usually report about 5000 to 10000. The total count for Spectacleds in the Wet Tropics is about 180,000
The Little Red flying foxes (Pteropus scapulatus) are sometimes at Tolga, and often in large numbers compared to the Spectacleds. They rarely use Tolga as a maternity camp, but often arrive when the young are flying, around September. The numbers will sometimes build up by the end of the year to be over a million (estimate only), but they are usually gone again by March when the wet season sets in. Little Reds can do significant damage to the forest if they hang in the weaker mid-canopy trees. This damage is the result of their characteristic behaviour of hanging in ‘bunches’ - the branches cannot take the weight and often bend until they break. This damage will repair itself, unlike the damage being done by the cockatoos that results in the death of the tree. However the Little Reds are sometimes camped in large numbers and do no damage, by camping in the larger trees and hanging apart from each other, rather than in bunches. This seems to happen late in the year, just before mating season.
Tolga Bat Hospital www.tolgabathospital.org/about_tolgascrub.htm
The Tolga Scrub is a vital part of the local ecosystem, and a refreshing landmark as one explores the Tablelands. But as soon as you have the opportunity to think “hmm… this rainforest seems a bit out of place” you have suddenly emerged into open woodland and cleared pasture. Incredibly, the Tolga Scrub is no more than two kilometres long and only a hundred metres wide!
You can see from this aerial view of the Tolga Scrub that it is completely isolated from other areas of rainforest and is bordered by farmland. The Tolga Scrub survived Cyclone Larry with only moderate damage, but this unique ecosystem faces a number of threats, not the least of which is internal fragmentation as animals and plant seeds have problems getting across the road which (quite bizarrely) disects this narrow sliver of irreplacebale Mabi rainforest.
We stopped to stock up at The Peanut Place (one bag of chilli and lime peanuts and one of honey and ginger peanuts) and then discovered that we were lucky enough to have arrived in Tolga on Market Day. You’d think we would have known in advance, since we have put together a comprehensive Tropical North Queensland Events Calendar, especially documenting every market in the region, and marking them on an interactive map! But the Tolga Markets was a pleasant surprise, and we were amazed at the size and breadth of this indoor/outdoor country market. There was everything from plants to books, stamps and coins, clothes, antiques and collectibles, arts and crafts, fruit and vegetables, and an unusual variety of foods and sweets.
We picked up a couple of giant passionfruit, two delicious pawpaws (papayas) and a few avocados; Shepherd variety. I carefully selected some slightly soft and some still hard so they would ripen in sequence. Once back home, Maria promptly selected the hardest of the lot and - struggling - cut it in half with a sharp knife. She is saving the two halves in the fridge, refusing to believe that it will not ripen now that it has been cut in half.
From Tolga, we continued through Atherton to Ravenshoe via the highest road in Queenslandd, then on to Millaa Millaa, where we and visited the picture perfect Millaa Millaa Falls, and dined at The Falls Teahouse, one of our all time favourites for their comfortable, relaxed ‘country style’ dining atmosphere and their freshly home made foods. I can almost never resist their rump steak pies, and this time chose to enjoy it as a ‘pie floater’, resting on a bed of mushy peas and drizzled with brown gravy. *drool*
Maria chose the fettucine carbonara, which was rich and creamy and generously laden with so much bacon that I had to help Maria finish it.