Sunday, September 20, 2009

The long road home

20 September

From St George we chose a route south west along the Castlereagh Highway, across the border into New South Wales, parallel with tributaries of the Darling that come together forty or so kilometers north east of Bourke. We took a short detour to visit the opal mining town of Lightning Ridge (a gentle rise in an otherwise flattish but lightly treed landscape) where an outburst of gross tourism feeds on the travails of the necessarily eccentric mining characters who scar the landscape with their pits, scrapes and diggings. The scene reminded me of the many bunny scrapes in the garden before we fenced the buggers out.

We came back across good dirt roads through the back blocks to our preferred trail at Brewarrina and then on through to Bourke. We have all heard of Bourke (“back of Bourke” for those overseas, refers to what used to be the Australia of the imagination, where only an explorer or a desperate man would think of going) and we were surprised to find a most modest little place. But when reading the promotional literature that you collect at the Information Centres along the way, you are led to believe every town is exceptional with outstanding features that make it a cut above the rest. Usually the literature still boasts of an agriculture that has probably past. The long list of produce and the money that was generated have now largely gone with the drought and when you ask about a particular crop, “haven’t put a cotton crop in for two years and we’ve no water allocation at all this year” is the sort of remark you hear.

From Bourke you have options,
but the Kidman Way (that starts at Cunnamulla and follows the old route that Sir Sidney Kidman’s drovers first cut to take cattle and to carry wool to the river steamers on the Darling) stays loyal to the compass and runs on south through Cobar, Griffith all the way down to the Murray at Tocumwal. It is a very good road carrying little traffic. A night was spent at Hillston, a bright little town where millions have recently been spent on fine civic delights like a new dual carriageway, pavement and lighting right through the town. Everyone is promoting the place in a most community minded way which is good to see; however the “For Sale” signs on many businesses in the High St tells of hard times getting harder. We spent a night in the Gundabooka NP south of Bourke, where there is some very interesting aboriginal art, good walks in the stone country, and a small but good campsite amongst the Mulga forest.

Next stop Griffith. We did not know that Walter Burley Griffin, following his appointment to design the layout of Canberra, was also responsible for the design of Griffith and Leeton These two towns are the market and labour centres that have benefited from the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Project that was commissioned early last century and was the precursor to the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Griffith is booming, and growing in population rapidly. The population is 50% Italian extraction, with Indians, Iraqis and even some Anglo Saxons scattered amongst the orange groves and vineyards. What a difference a sensitive hand can make to a community. Griffin’s layout is grand (and of course has boulevards radiating form a circular focal point) and integrates the irrigation canal through the centre of the town. The main shopping street faces south to the civic buildings and wide gardens across a broad dual carriageway. We thought it was magnificent and quite the finest large country town (about 28,000 pop) we have seen. It is what Shepparton could have been.

One of Griffith’s treasures is the “Hermit’s Cave”, which had us spellbound. Griffith is on flat ground but is flanked with a craggy sandstone ridge to its north. The town has now grown to the foot of this rise, but in 1920 the orange groves were several kilometres distant across open grassy country. An Italian named Ricetti, who had arrived after the first war, made the south facing outcrops his own. Over two decades he used the local material to build dry stone walled terraces and staircases. He occupied three of the small caves. He planted vegetables, fruits and flowers, and lived a hermit’s existence, but was actively supported by the local community and had many visitors. There are many photographs of him in the surroundings he largely created and it would be a wonderful thing if his works could be restored. During the Second World War a different frame of mind prevailed and being an Italian he was interned, during which time the Rotary Club made it their responsibility to maintain his dwelling place and gardens until his return. He did return but now found work locally and visited “My sacred hillside” when he could.

We didn’t leave Griffith until well after lunch and we had made up our minds to get to Yarrawonga by dusk, as neither of us had been there before. We did not make it, and that was all to the good. It was getting dark as we found a gateway into the Mulwala State Forest,that sits beside the Murray about eight kilometres west of that township. The Red Gum forest opened onto a small field of grassland beside the banks of the river, where a wide stretch of water arced away in front of us. So many camps beside rivers and waterholes, and this was one of the best. Our last night with stars, the remains of our pantry just sufficient, one bottle of good Argentine red left, and Slava on the iPod. What more could anyone ask for? We unwisely tried to exit the forest by continuing along the river, as a late night passer-by had evidently done. Fortunately we found our way out of the forest again after half an hour. Don’t go in those forests without a map! We reflected on the meaning of Yarrawonga and it’s effect on the aged who live there. It’s a lively enough place beside the weir, with inflated house and land prices all thanks to irrigation. That housing is another crop of sorts. The weather was, for the first time on the trip, overcast. Lovely. We stopped for morning tea with friends in Shepparton, and as we left there the rain started. It was pure delight to be driving back through Nagambie and Kyneton in good rain.

This has been an enjoyable blog to write and we both hope you have followed it with interest. Can we encourage more followers to write comments? And special thanks to those who did because it is good getting feed back on the move. We are planning a trip next year to the top end, starting earlier maybe in April, and lasting perhaps two to three months. The Gulf, here we come!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hamilton Island

We had not been to Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays before. We lowered ourselves slowly down the steep slope from Eungella NP early on Tuesday morning (8 Sept), down amongst the cane fields, turning north again for a stay in Cape Hillsborough NP before catching the ferry over to the island from Shute Haven.

We explored much of Hillsborough NP on foot. Hills plunge into the sea, and vegetation habitats range between rainforest, vine forest, eucalypt forest with grassy understorey, with hoop pines poking above it all, and mangroves. Of Australia’s 35 species of mangroves nearly three-quarters can be seen on the Mangrove boardwalk.

Barry’s kind offer of the use of his apartment on Hamilton Island for few days was
a gift because we would never have come otherwise. Proserpine, Shute - both towns are familiar through the tourist brochures but are really small places. Airlie Beach though....a hot Lorne on steroids, with development going full bore and commercialism everywhere. A pity but it does help focus attention away from the main game which of course is where the real commercial activity takes place – on the islands of Hamilton, Lindeman, Daydream and a couple of other spots, Hamilton being the most developed and up-market.

We found a handy caravan park where we were able to leave the rig securely for $10 a night, and caught the bus the ten minutes to Shute Haven where we did a bit of blogging while waiting for the ferry. The half hour trip across to Hamilton over the azure waters of the Coral Sea whetted our appetites and our curiosity. What a delightful surprise! This place is seriously good fun; so well arranged and organised, it seems like a mini version of Singapore. Clean, manicured tropical landscape in the resorts, no cars but little club buggies everywhere. Notwithstanding having its own airport it is relatively very quiet. Barry is one of the two island doctors, a job that he shares with colleagues on a month turn about basis. He has possibly one of the best jobs in the world! The privately owned houses are all to the highest quality, selling in the stratospheric region of the market, being a world class and World Heritage listed area of the world. Apparently the improvements made to the island, along with running costs last year came to $2 Billion. We loved it.

Barry’s apartment is well placed facing north, on the quieter northern side overlooking
the main passage. Islands complete the view from his balcony, all National Park and not a single building to be seen across the water. Coconut palms line the beach below, with a series of well landscaped swimming pools between the sea and the accommodation. We took ourselves off to Whitehaven Beach (rated as one of the top ten in the world) for some snorkelling and a look at the other islands, where the sand is 98% pure silicon and as white as possible. Helen enjoyed a bush walk on her own to Coral Cove, with 6kms of steep ups and downs and only one grazed finger.

oss and Kathy Thomas came up from Melbourne for a week of “rest”, so they had to share with us for a couple of days, an experience I know we’ll all remember! Kathy’s big birthday on the 10th tallied with sister Margie’s and our daughter Katie’s as well, so some toasting went on. We had four nights out there so some marvellous eating and drinking and a chance to meet with several of Barry’s work colleagues to talk about living and working in the Whitsundays. Everyone seems to love the wet season when it pours for three hours every day and mould grows on all your clothes and shoes. There is something different about Queenslanders.

All things come to pass as we know, and our brief interlude was over too q
uickly. On the last morning a 5:30am walk up to the top of the tallest peak on the island (Passage Peak) was a good way to finish off. We have felt that that was the end of the holiday really, all that remained was the solid drive back to Melbourne ahead of us. With a quick pack and a snatched breakfast on the way out of the door, we made the ferry nicely. Back on the mainland by 10:15, we retraced our steps to the van, to find our batteries down to just 8 volts, not a good look and we’ve probably shortened the battery life significantly. But we will learn from the exercise and will probably boost the solar collection capacity for next year. The fridges could have been turned lower too. If we ever do stay put for any sort of break we’ll be in trouble without mains power.

That was yesterday. We revisited MacKay and grabbed a lunch at a spot we had visited before, then pressed on. With about 450kms done we reached Clermont in the Central
Highlands and hooked up to power for the night at a neat park, feeding the horses over the fence beside us.The temperature rose as we headed further inland of course. We got on the road this morning at 6am and after spotting flocks of brolgas over Emerald we stopped for an in-house breakfast outside Springsure under Virgin Rock, before sweeping past the Carnarvon Gorge NP where we spent such a good time a couple of weeks ago. On through Roma, and our Camps Australia Wide book told us of a free camp beside a river just north of St George. We are seated now, well fed, hoping that tomorrow morning we can nip into town and talk our way into a car service at the Toyota dealership. Forward planning can be tricky especially when weekends get in the way.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Heading for coastal hedonism

The climb down from the Blackdown Tableland to Dingo, as with the climb up, was a low range affair taking about 20 minutes. The change in vegetation was obvious, as were the kangaroos and wallabies that don’t inhabit the high ground behind us. The plan was to head for the coast and prepare for our Hamilton Island stay with Barry by working our way northwards through the sugar cane country that extends all the way up to the Daintree north of Cairns. We emerged from over the Connor Range where we were fortunate to see some cattle mustering by helicopter on the road in front of us. Magnificent flying. It was a bit like negotiating with the other driver with his caravan and seeing if you can anticipate his next move, except this was three dimensional.

St Lawrence on the coast, touted in the regional literature as a haven, was a very marginal place that did have good fish and chips. Catching up with a copy of The Australian we regretted not having another eight weeks before having to confront the hurly burly again. That evening we tried to get into Cape Palmerston NP but it entailed a 5 km drive along the beach and an awareness of the tides, so we pulled up short at the edge of the park and set up for the night. Dave, a local, seeing us drive past, took time out from family duties and arrived to have a chat. A very affable fellow with lots of information and confirmation that the council team had seen 35 pairs of slitty eyes up the creek just nearby, but No, he’d not seen a croc in his ten years living there. He confirmed our concern about going up the beach being soft going at the far end, so we were content to leave the park proper for another day.

The wind was strong and onshore so we set up the little wind break that helps keep the cooking area under control. Unfortunately the wind carried gritty embers from a couple of old campfires to windward of us, depositing a dirty coating everywhere. An early start was made the next morning, for the hedonistic joys of Mackay.

We have realised that for this coastal travelling it is best to keep the distances between destinations reasonably short. The early start and quite short run to Mackay got us there about midday, in time to get the last berth in the best caravan park about 10km north of the town. Seawinds Park opened directly onto a beach from the like of which photo shoots are made. With a twenty metre stroll through the coconut grove and the high tide curling around your ankles at the bottom of the steps, it was a great deal for $28 a night. Full of even older folk who stayed long term, fished nad wnet ot bed very early. We unhitched the caboose, paid for two nights and set off to explore the charming streets of MacKay.

Many buildings were destroyed by fire and a cyclone after the first World War, but there was a rush of building in the mid 1930’s and there are many examples (of a lower order) of Art Dec
o and it is held as being the best collection of 30’s buildings in Queensland. It is bright and colourful and is the hub of a large region made profitable from coal and sugar. As with so many towns there is something of a rush on to expand with housing into areas of natural beauty but no services, but no effort is going into renewal, except where a civic benefit will follow, as along the Pioneer River frontage. The older housing areas of the town leave much to be desired. A couple of visits to the Eimeo pub nearby was a highlight. Perched on a headland high above sea level, a meal and several beers; we enjoyed this spot immensely.

A young couple we met and chatted with had recently moved from Ballarat. He is a fitter and turner and she is a child care worker both having run out of work in Victoria. He got a job straight away and she has one lined up just as soon as they’ve sorted their rental housing out. They looked so happy with a new life in the tropics falling into place for them. The opportunities and amount of work up here seems unlimited, and the contrast with Victoria is marked.

Making an almost final lunge for the back country we left Mackay and headed inland up the Pioneer River Valley about 80kms, through the cane country and many small and well lo
oked after villages, for Eungella NP. Close enough to the coast to be a very popular place, we nonetheless found the road quiet on a Saturday morning, especially with Father’s Day following. The approach to Eungella, as with Blackdown, is up a very steep incline that exercised the low range box again. You pop out at the top, and thinking we must be quick to secure a spot for camping, swung the rig straight into the caravan park after a fish basket lunch at the 1934 Eungella Chalet. We found a lush lawn to park on, and - only a cliché will do - a view to die for.

Blair from Scotland and wife Mari
ka from Sweden strolled over before we had the awning up, and before we knew it we had compared the pros and cons of our caravan choices and were singing familiar Swedish drinking songs and talking of the old days studying in Edinburgh! Agreeing we would meet for drinks at a gazebo placed to get the best view down the valley, we finished the gin, and a bottle of red, as a full moon rose at the end of the valley. The cane harvest was being burnt off on the valley floor. At about 600 metres or more, the air became deliciously cool and mist overhead started to fall over us and on down the seemingly vertical slope. Saying good night to our new friends in the mist, we were surprised the following morning to see the whole valley below us covered in cloud, with bright sunshine above and 20C at 7 in the morning. A day for walking and Helen very excited.

Finch Hatton Gorge is accessed by a good walking track that takes you along the creek to a water fall 2.5kms and 300 steps away. Humidity of course is quite high and the shade of the sub tropical rain forest a saviour. Goannas were many, as were brush turkeys, and at the caravan park at night, bandicoots. A deep pool at the end of the walk was cool and we were glad of a swim. We explored as much of the park as we could by car as well, although not much is accessible. There is a stretch of water on the Broken River where Eastern long necked turtles are plentiful and platypus can be spotted morning and evening.

Our last evening there was Father’s Day and our wedding anniversary the next day, so we were playing some music quietly and cooking up a special meal. A bottle had been opened. A polite Dutch voice asked us if we had any change. Olaf and Esther were having an Australian holiday, he had been to a climate change conference in Melbourne, she is a hydrographer. We shared a red with them and it was fascinating to hear the perspectives of a couple of Europeans who were really aware of the changes going on around us.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Blackdown Tableland National Park

He had his piece on the van, so she wants to wax lyrical about this particular Park in central Queensland. It ticks every box - for spectacular scenery, walks, special plants, cooler weather, few people on well maintained camp sites (carpeted with wood mulch!)

Blackdown Tableland is a sandstone plateau where three ranges converge; it rises above the surroundi
ng plains where coal mining occurs, for example at Blackwater. After climbing for over 800 metres in six kilometres the air is soft and cool, and often misty. It was heavenly to pull on a sweater once more in the evening after the heat of outback Queensland. Ian was seriously impressed by the careful attention to architectural detail in the eco toilets, but not the over-abundance of bollards to negotiate while backing into campsites. There is no water available so campers must be self-sufficient.

Here is my account of our perfect last day of August.

We woke to the sound of Currawongs and the beady yellow eye of one staring through the van window as it checked out last night’s saucepans. Breakfast was followed by a lovely 2.5km walk called Goon Goon Din, a Cultural Circuit. It demonstrated a bit of stockmen history with post and rail fence and cattle yard remains – a short-lived industry as apparently the lush-looking grassland is deficient in phosphorous and cattle developed chalky bones; kangaroos and wallabies are therefore absent too. Signs along Mimosa Creek pointed out plants and the uses made of them by the indigenous Ghungalu people whose traditional home the Tableland was and still is – they jointly manage the national park. Their art site under a long rock ledge shows stencils, mainly of hands.

Because of the Tableland’s isolation and elevation the plant communities are very varied and include heathlands, dry eucalyptus forests and moist pockets of ferns, mosses and orchids. Many of the plants and animals are found nowhere else, for example the Blackdown Stringybark, 2 Acacias, a Banksia, and this Blackdown monster – Grevillea longistyla.

After morning tea with Mr Currawong in attendance, we headed off for a 19km 4WD loop drive with a detour via the Ghudda Gamoo (Rainbow Waters) lookout and a totter down 240 steps to the waterfall below. As there was no-one about it was irresistible to strip off and have a reviver in the pool underneath the Cabbage tree palms and ferns.

Back in the Prado for some serious 4WD track work past spectacular sandstone outcrops and picnic lunch at Mutha Boongulla (Charlevue) lookout far above the surrounding plains. On to another lookout called Yaddemen Dhina and a very firm refusal from the spouse to walk a further 3km along another creek. However back at camp while he wrote more blog and read his book I headed off for what I thought would be gentle stroll along Mimosa Creek in the opposite direction to the morning one. Of course every bend led to another more irresistible one with dramatic waterholes, new plants and birds to be seen. I finished up at the edge of a cliff with “Achtung”and “Danger” signs and magnificent views, and had to move pretty smartly to retrace my path before dark.

A pot roast in the camp oven, a bottle of red and choral music under the Casuarinas topped off this perfect day - Oh, plus the last episode of Katie’s DVD series of Rome (Caesar being murdered) on the laptop before lights out!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Carnarvon Gorge to the Blackdown Tableland

30 August
Our first call was to Carnarvon Gorge NP. We made an early start from Barcaldine and headed on east along the Capricorn Highway, through Jericho, Alpha and then Emerald (a turn around the Botanical Gardens, a tour de force considering they started in 1988) wher
e we had information about a lovely spot called Higher Ground, some ten or so kilometres out of Emerald, where the lady sells magnificent tomatoes. It was a magic spot because she asked us “would you like to camp beside the river?” So we wound our way a further two kilometres along a private track, down through the scrub and under a lovely stand of tall trees beside the fast flowing Nogoa River (out of the Fairbairn Dam). The grass was mown, there was no-one around. It was heavenly after a week of caravan parks.

We had turned south now and were headed for the long range of hills over the horizon, with some excitement. It would be our first time in hills and gorges since leaving The Diamantina. Carnarvon Gorge is heralded as one of Queensland’s leading attractions, and so it proved. There is a caravan park loftily known as Takarraka Resort, and further on one of those “eco-ified” groups of sympathetic huts (lodges to the marketeers) that charge $220 a share, with pub food.

For those more energetic ones an 87 km walk takes you up out of the gorge and around through the high plateau country. Our new chum Max did this walk as they came west from Sydney, taking 5 days for the trip, with full packs and a new battery in the GPS. The gorge walk is a 20km return with several wonderful side trips into the Moss Garden, the Amphitheatre, Ward’s gorge, the aboriginal rock art and others. We confined ourselves to an excellent 14km walk. The weather was kind, with the temperature down around the 27C mark, and some cloud.

The tableland was basalt capped, with sandstone below. The basalt has now mostly eroded away and the river has cut deeply into the underlying sandstone to create a gorge about 300 metres wide, and perhaps that deep, with the side gorges varying from narrow clefts as at Wards, to broad valleys as with the art site. The main gorge walk criss crosses the gently flowing river about twenty times and there are delightful views of Livistonia palms amongst Sheoaks and Spotted Gums. The river bed is strewn with large boulders, much of it the original basalt materiel from the top, with the long, broken mast like tree trunks brought together into great tangles, by the fast flowing spate caused by the summer rains. We think there is a likeness to the younger valleys of perhaps Scandinavia, were it not for the layer of palms, a slash of greeny yellow through the more drab greygreens of the surrounding forest. The battlemented backcloth of the pale lime coloured sandstone encircles all.

Each of the walks into the side gorges was a special experience, The Amphitheatre has you clambering up steep staircases and through a narrow cleft deep in the cliff that leads to a cathedral sized eroded opening about 30 metres diameter but rising up and up to the tableland above. Ward’s Gorge you enter up beside a fall of water, along a creek bed beneath overhanging rock to a pool at the end. This is where four Ward brothers lived for many months each year, possum hunting. The Wards were the holders or owners of the land for half a century or more, and they worked with the State government in providing assistance and advice so the public could enjoy access, after the Park was gazetted in 1932. The aboriginal art site is unusual (but shares this characteristic with sites in NSW) in the interest shown in the rare but sometimes seen vulva. Vulvas are carved hundreds of times and some with enthusiasm. Fertility as always is not far from the mind. This is the dry season, end of winter, when the grasses are turned to hay and the risk of fire is high. Access to the wilder parts of the park is closed because of fire risk and there was a lot of smoke from the active burning off that councils here indulge in. They have a very different attitude to roadside fuel loads than that held by councils in Victoria.

With the coast now in our mind’s eye we moved on after two nights at the exorbitant rate of $38, and headed north again to Blackwater for fuel. We travelled beside a magnificent tableland that is the Blackdown National Park, rising 600 metres above us,and although early in the day we decided we would make the steep climb and explore and enjoy the cooler air up there. So began another wonderful little chapter.

Look and ye shall find. Without the enthusiasm and research skills of my illustrious navigator I would have steamed past so much of this magnificent country. You do have to tease it out, ask the locals, never pass an Information centre, have all the books you can with you, and stop and go back. It must be about women doing the searching out of elusive fruits while men have their focus on the game over the horizon!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

It’s time to talk about the new Camper Trailer

4 September
This trip pivots on the new rig, in large measure. Last year we purchased a Tvan without any research really, except that the word going around was that they are “up there”. We bought it from an architect and he seemed suitably reluctant to part with it, so it must be good, yes? Well it was good. Until we reached the Clare Valley and in three nights we experienced a wholly different side of the travelling routine; we froze. You can’t do this touring thing and get it all right first off, but we got close. The story of our finding the VistaRV Crossover has been touched on at the front end of this blog, and I have been holding off making any comment until we have really experienced how we get along with it.

OK, we haven’t had rain yet, apart from a few millimetres on our first night at Hay, and nor have we had very cold weather, because we are travelling three months later than last year, but we both know that the Crossover has addressed our main concerns. Canvas for us is a pain, and there is none to worry about. OK, when the Tvan was opened right up there was a little living room, but as with all the hard floor camper trailers that space costs you half an hour every day and with the Tvan, for us anyway, barked knuckles and irritation. There was so much moving of containers from here to there we found it very boring.

The pleasure of cooking and living outside is the big attraction, and this is the difference between a camper trailer and a caravan. At the moment we are at a fantastic caravan park called Seawinds, on the beach at North MacKay. People here have been repeating their bookings for twenty years, and there are a lot of Victorians. They are mostly into fishing, and 9kg fish are landed here regularly. Where do they all go after 8pm? Helen and I are out here blogging away or reading a book in cooling fresh breezes and the place may as well be a morgue! Take a turn around the park and you will see the flicker of Kerry O’Brien or his commercial equivalent gathering each soul into the bosom of his or her Franklin, Viscount, Jayco Expanda, or if you are of that bent, Wild Tiger (in which case you will not appear at happy hour but will be found polishing the wheel nuts of the Ford 200 wide track tow-all). Caravanning is a different thing all together. But they are great when it rains or it’s blowing a gale, they just can’t go off the black top.

Most of the attractions for us are to be found in the National Parks and that often means rough roads. We want something that takes the minimum amount of time to set up, will keep us warm and dry. And go where the Tvan would go. The Crossover does that very well. You do have to experiment with the storage because some of it is under the benches that the bed sits on. We have found making up the bed every day a chore so we have had to rearrange our kitchen utensils and place little used items under the bed, which is fine. We now have all the utensils in a plastic tough box that slides out of a side locker. When we cook the whole lot comes out and whatever you want for food prep is there in front of you. There is a bit of dust getting in, but with some careful play with the sealant gun that will easily be minimised.

There are minor things that we will talk to the manufacturer about, and hopefully he will help us out with some of that, but all in all we are really pleased with the purchase. This morning a lady came over to us and said that the Crossover had been featured on TV. Paul Hogan Crocodile Dundee and his wife have been given one to take up to Cape York. Or so the lady would have it. Wouldn’t it be nice to be showered with largesse like that! Perhaps he could call me and I can tell him where to put his utensils.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Experiencing outback Central Queensland’s country towns

23 to 28 August This was the start of an interesting week without plans, and we began by setting off for a little village we had been told about called Ilfracombe, east, just the other side of Longreach. Its "Great Machinery Mile" of tractors and old engineeringequipment is known around Australia to tractor buffs. We had heard tales of the “happy hour” there, and the welcome given to travelling folk. Running later than we have ever done before (because of kangaroos) we rang ahead to ensure a berth, and luckily got the last bay available, next to the highway where the road trains thundered by regularly. We got there half way through the daily "happy hour" celebrations and most were on their third beer and the jokes were becoming predictably blue. Actually they were downright filthy, but the audience was extremely appreciative. It was very funny but we realised we were about one and half decades too early! Happy hour is a tradition we encountered at a couple of campgrounds lately and seems to be a Queensland tradition.

And now, in complete contrast, with the desert well behind us, we settled down to a diet of tourism by travelling back and forth into Longreach – a day at the Qantas museum and a da
y at the Stockmen’s Hall of Fame sponsored by RM Williams. We were both totally absorbed at both museums and enjoyed ourselves immensely (contrary to our expectations).

Qantas started life at Winton, soon moved to Longreach where they were
the only airline in the world to manufacture their own aeroplanes under licence. Then they moved to Mascot, flying boats and the link with Imperial Airways in UK, before becoming properly international with the purchase of their first Boeing 707. This aircraft is at Longreach, fully restored in the UK (and flown out with some trepidation a couple of years ago) by a dedicated team of retired Aussie engineers and cabin crew who went back there to rescue it from a graveyard at Southend Airport where it had languished for six years. It had been converted for use by pop and film stars, leased by Michael Jackson, Madonna, and others, before being purchased by a Saudi prince. The lingering smell of hookah pipes in the “living room” and the fully mirrored double bedroom, gold plated taps on the bidet, let alone the bar, give the imagination plenty to work on. In 2006 Qantas retired one of its last 747’s to Longreach, the ones that still used a flight engineer on board, before they were computerised. It landed there unladen and with almost no fuel on board, in order to be able to stop on the tiny runway. And that is where it will stay! The Qantas airline history must be one of the most interesting you would come across, and the new building that houses the displays is a good one.

The Hall of Fame tells the story of Australia’s drovers and cattlemen very well, in a building that defies complimentary description (others apparently love it). We have followed the tales of the explorers and pioneers, squatters and the big cattle barons. The challenges they met were in a world totally different from the one we live in today. The stories are admirable, and the link with the emergence of one of the worlds’ foremost airlines is well made. Considering its isolation Longreach has unique drawcards for the tourist dollar, and is a vibrant small centre on the Capricorn Highway.///

After three nights in Ilfracombe we moseyed a short distance east to Barcaldine and set up where happy hour is one of the advertising drawca
rds for the caravan park. We heard on the vine that a chap named Tom Lockie runs a day long 300km tour that, through his special connections, takes you to places you would not otherwise get to. He was part of the happy hour act, and at 7am the next morning we peeled off $280 and climbed aboard his Coaster bus for an extraordinary day. In some ways it epitomised the Australian bush experience. With the help of a local character (donkeys would have no hind legs in Barcaldine) Tom, who knows every bit of history about the place being an ex drover himself, makes seemingly innocuous things take on real meaning, it is fascinating indeed. An example. We were not ten minutes on our way when he stopped across the road from a very old, very ordinary and now very unused pair of gateposts. No, these were the posts that were the original town gates of Barcaldine. Meant for horse drawn wagons, cars going through (and especially if the gate was left open) were fined. After much lobbying the local Council provided a separate ramp and grid for the cars to use. Sure enough, there in the scrub were the remains of the grid. This dated back to about 1920, and whilst relatively recent in time, it’s simplicity is tantalising, and soon to be gone along with Tom himself. ‘Who will tell the tale then?”we ask. To which the answer is a shrug of the shoulders.///

We visited one of the most inaccessible and yet well known aboriginal art sites. On a property called “Gracevale”, it is the on
ly art site where the cycle of life is represented by footprints etched into the rock. It has been visited recently by Navajo elders from N America for whom the representation of the cycle holds special meaning. The art here is also unusual in that it is thought to represent the Milky Way, and the Southern Cross is clear to see. The next site we visited was Mailman’s Gorge with Gordon's Cave, site of a massacre. The tale is a familiar one in which a government surveyor is speared by a tribesman. The entire aboriginal group was driven into the cave and all of the men young and old, were then murdered.

Now on private property, the ruined hotel site where the Cobb & Co coaches used to stop around 1890 is marked by the thousands of names of the travellers who whiled away a couple of hours by chiselling their details into Gray's Rock beside the old roadway. The roadway has gone now, except for parallel ridges of raised hard clay that can be traced through the scrub, where decades of hard wheels have compressed and hardened the surface. Rains have removed the material around the old ruts, leaving them now as ridges.

Barcaldine of course, is the home of the now dead “Tree of Knowledge” that has recently been recreated in controversial three dimensional form in the main stree
t. The tree was the meeting place of striking shearers in 1891, and is where the union and Labour movement began. Premier Anna Bligh formally “opened” the new installation in May. There are some stories about who was responsible for the death of the tree but a well informed local told us that the tree, old as it was, was given the coup de grace by the local council. Some time after Premier Goss planted another tree next to the old one, the Council commissioned extensive exposed aggregate paving works surrounding both trees. They did not specify any protection works for the trees. Acid washing was used to expose the aggregate. Hey presto – two dead trees. Paving looks terrific though! The other story is that the council used the same watering truck to water the trees as they had used to spray Roundup on the railway lines. Who'd be a Council CEO?!

The installation is a real Jekyll and Hyde affair. During the day this enormous and frankly ugly black box towers above the township and is visible for miles around. It squats in the main street and traffic is now obliged to steer around it. At night lighting from within the massive ribbed cube, illuminates facetted pieces of suspended hardwood in such a way that you can clearly see a ghost of the tree as it was in its maturity. The roots have been exposed and can be seen under a glass floor. As the workers were clearing away the soil they came across a brass plaque that had been secretly buried at the base of the tree by a grieving widow. Marked in remembrance of a “True Believer”, it was secured amongst the roots and is now part of the
installation. After dark it is magical, and well worth stopping a night in Barcaldine for. It will work wonders for the local economy.

We drove to Isisford on our third day there, about 150 kms away. This is where a fossilised crocodile (Isisfordia Duncanii) has recently been found, and whilst it predates most of the dinosaurs, this one has ch
aracteristics shared only with modern crocodiles. So it is the ancestor of the modern crocodile, and you should see how this community of about one hundred works it for all it is worth. A visit to the semi-circular shearing shed (unique in Australia and one of two in the world; the other is in Argentina) at Isis Downs is something well worth doing. It is the property that Sir Rupert Clarke originally developed at the turn of the 19/20 Centuries, along with his solicitor. It was more efficient (but had the reputation of being a very hot shed) and was made possible by the invention of the electric shearing machine. That of course meant they had to generate their own electricity, itself a first in the industry. Clarke was obviously a very far sighted operator.

After a further three nights in Barcaldine we felt we had really “done” the country towns and it was time to move along. We had made contact with old buddy Dr Barry Gilbert, who spends every other month on Hamilton Island looking after the health and well being mostly of the shipboard tourists. He has kindly opened his doors to us in the second week in September, so now we have a plan and will spend a couple of weeks working our way to Shute Harbour where we can catch the ferry on 8 Sep.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Diamantina National Park and Lark Quarry

20 August You can tell a really good night by the willingness of the eyes to focus the following morning! We were fresh and raring to get on in to the Diamantina NP. The park was until recently the 507,000 hectare Diamantina Lakes Station, established in 1875, owned by Janet Holmes a Court, then purchased by the Queensland Government and gazetted as a National Park in 1992. The landscape is varied as the Diamantina River courses through the extensive Mitchell grass plains and red sand dune country, cutting a braided series of steep sided waterways deep into the sediment. The Goyder and Hamilton Ranges jump up as a barrier to the flow except at Hunter’s Gorge (where we camped beside Mundewerra Waterhole) where the water piles up in a flood and has scoured deep waterholes. The birdlife is plentiful, with Spoonbills, Pelicans and Kites cruising at altitude on thermals and probing and sifting the very clayey water.

We took an afternoon to
drive the 87km Waracoota Drive that takes you through the dunes and claypans explaining much about the history and culture of the place. A highlight for us was to be up well before sunrise to walk the gorge and climb to the top of the jump up where the kites were circling, as the sun painted the rock faces and ledges in a cherry glow. Time for more good byes as we headed north east towards Winton, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn as we went. This was a significant moment for another reason, because from this point on we had no real plans, and were working on the basis that provided we could find some Telstra coverage to get the blog despatched everything would be fine. So Winton it was.

The immediate goal was to visit Lark Quarry on the way, 110 kms short of Winton. This is where the only record in the world of a dinosaur stampede is fossilised in the sandstone. The journey there was a delightful drive through jump up country, with many mesas and ever changing vegetation. The heat was becoming a real issue as temperatures rose into the high 30’s, 39C at one point. Realising the only way to view the 3300 dinosaur prints was by guided tour at set times, and we could not reach the place by 2pm for the last tour, we pulled up at Old Cork Homestead, another ruin, and made early camp beside the waterhole there. A welcome and pleasant spot. It’s a big difference between last year’s Kimberly waterholes and those here. In outback Queensland the land has been eroded to vast tracts of sediments that make any sort of movement after rain almost impossible. Here the rivers cut steep and deep into the soft clay making access to the water nigh on impossible. If you do venture in you emerge veneered in sticky clay. Don’t step on the spot where you drain the sink – instant removal of sandal will follow!

Lark Quarry Conservation Park is a good modern building (as usual, architect unknown but we saw everyone else taking credit for it, mostly the politicians) that covers the dinosaur tracks. These were discovered after much careful detective work by the palaeontologists and geologists who hit the jackpot when they excavated a particular layer they calculated would be about 95 million years old, and likely to be fossil bearing. It is an interesting story. The many tracks of quite smal
l Coelurosaurs and ornithopods (standing about chicken and kangaroo height respectively) are seen gathering beside the water’s edge, overlain by the 50cm long prints of a large Carnosaur (2.5metres at the shoulder). There you can see how the smaller creatures were caught napping and they turn and run in all directions. Speculating on time as you examine aboriginal artwork is one thing but this is another dimension altogether.

With the morning passing fast we made for Winton, arriving in time for Barramundi at Tattersall’s Hotel, under a welcome sweep fan. The prospect of spending two hours in the van so we could get the next blog up and running was not cause for celebration, so we tarried and enjoyed cold beer in a real pub.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Channel Country and towards the Diamantina NP

Leaving Birdsville the next day (18 August) we set course together northwards along the Eyre Developmental Hwy, or more delightfully named “Bilby Way”, towards Bedourie and the Diamantina National Park. Just out of Birdsville and before you reach Sir Sidney Kidman’s first property, “Carcory” a ruin, a new tree appears. First a couple, then in sparse copses and occasional lone sentinels. It is the Waddi tree (Acacia peuce), thought to be a remnant of the time before the last glacial era that shaped much of this part of Australia. As with so many things on these journeys, they are slowly dying out. It is an extraordinary wood that was traded by the Aborigines across the whole continent and was used by them for spear tips and other hard duties. Apparently it is the only wood that blunts a sharp axe, breaks the tooth of a saw, and a drill bit cannot penetrate. I don’t know how the indigenes made spear heads but I guess they must have used flints chipped from local marlstone!

Carcory is interesting in that whilst Kidman was the greatest of the cattle barons, and his company is still the largest land holder in Australia, his first venture turned sour and he lost 4000 head of cattle. He was a quick learner and didn’t look back after that. How he got finance I don’t know.

We persuaded Max& Linda to co
me with us into the Diamantina NP and left Bedourie about 2:30pm to tackle the 200kms of good gravel from Bedourie into the park. We knew we wouldn’t get as far as the park before sunset. The road rose gradually across iron black gibber plains and short bleached hay Mitchell grass, uninterrupted horizons spread in all directions. The spatial senses were on high alert and this was a new experience altogether. Curvature of the Earth. A pair of Brolgas over on the left. Then a trio of Emus strode in stately fashion and took off helter skelter. So began the best night we have spent travelling. With the sun twenty minutes from setting we pulled off the track onto a grassy flat area beside a shallow stunty tree edged dry creek and set up camp, our new chums nervous about the isolation (and Helen was prevented from calling up dingoes), but happy to be in company. We settled down with a G&T, bag of chilli chips and a couple of beers, cooked up a good meal, and laughed away under stars and stars and stars. There were so many stars none of us could find the familiar constellations, and we had to be satisfied with the Cross. The Bowmore failed to help in this quest but made our incompetence in matters astronomical something we all thought we could live with! We played Pepe Romero, and gypsy flamenco from the film Vengo at high volume, and knew nothing could be more fun than this – it was like being teenagers again!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Birdsville & Big Red

17 August. Birdsville, a town of 150 or so; except for the first week in September when 5 or 6 thousand partygoers descend (literally in most cases) on the pub and its immediate surrounds to celebrate a bit of horseracing. The 1926 photo taken beside the start/finish line illustrates a keen following of local fanciers at that time; about 100. Somehow this town has pulled off the trifecta and become something of a circus and flypaper for city money. In ‘79 it really was very remote, and its isolation at the eastern end of the French Line crossing of the Simpson Desert ensures mythical status. The pub, burnt down in 1979, has been turned into a slick operation that pushes the right buttons and avoids being too obvious. A good watering hole for people like us who got there the dirty way, but also for those who stepped off the Dash8 or Aztec that is parked across the street. Anyway, H & I were having our first ale and wondering where Max & Linda really were.

Thirty seconds passed and "Helen!" .....It wasn’t hard was it!

Again, lovely to catch up with these good people, met last year on the D
arling. Their news surprised us because when asked how long they would be on the road this year we were told they had enjoyed themselves so much last time, going up as far as Cape York, that they had leased their Gladesville house in Sydney for two years and really were nomads! We dined together in the pub and laid plans for the following morning when we were to conquer Big Red.

Sadly none of you will be able to go to The Working Museum in Birdsville to hear John Menzies describe and see him demonstrate machinery that he has collected. Toy
s, saddlery, household items, lawnmowers, pumps, chainsaws, fridges, buggies, Furphy tanks, wheelwright equipment, beautiful mules making chaff and raising water etc. etc. This has been the town’s major attraction for many years but his wife has been taken ill and gone to hospital in Adelaide; John has decided to call it a day after this year’s races. To see the ingenuity of a past era of mechanical thinkers, frankly we have gone backwards with all the digital stuff. Much will be recalled into use I’ll bet. After spending the morning in the Museum we gathered our senses and drove the twenty or so kilometres out to the day’s main challenge.

Nappanerica is the traditional name given to the last of something like 600 dunes that have to be crossed if you come over the Simpson from Dalhousie Springs and Alice. The dunes average about ten metres in height and between a hundred metres and a kilometre between, with the occasional whoppe
r, and Nappanerica (or “Big Red” as our own brothers so poetically name it) tops the lot. No intrepid Aussie can resist the challenge of going against this one, 4WD prowess is at stake here, as the Channel 10 chatter on the UHF makes plain. Pure men’s talk.

“Bernie, do you copy?”

“Gotcha Johnno”

“Jeez, youse in Low third or High second mate? She’s a bastard on them corrugations, just can’t make the last ten ”

“Yeah, I can see yer havin’ trouble from up here, give her some real stick yer donkey”.
Or more correctly: “White Prado attempting Big Red westwards, are we clear?”

And if no one a
nswers off you go – great fun too. The thing is lots of people do this and the crests are completely blind, so cars are fitted with tall red flag topped poles to avoid a head on. We ventured towards Eyre Creek where wild flowers were rumoured, but in the knowledge there were another 592 dunes ahead there was little point in going further. What was clear was that you don’t cross the Simpson towing anything, so the Big Red challenge was it.

A brief digression. Back at Mungerannie Hotel half way up the Birdsville Track we met a woman who complained of the cold temperature there (it was a lovely 26C) saying that the heat in Birdsville was 33. She was correct and the temperature continued to rise as we approached B, and again while there. As we reached Bedourie to do some fuelling up the temperature rose a further 3C within a distance of just 20kms. We were beginning to realise things were not as they should be as local folk complained to each other of the sort of summer they were likely to have. The thermometer in the car told us coolly that it was 38C outside. This is August, Qld temperatures were exceeded by 10C. It still is as I sit in Barcaldine in my shorts hotter than we were at any time on last year’s trip.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Birdsville track to Birdsville

On 16 August we had to say our good byes. As we headed north east out of Marree they went north west for Coober Pedy. Our track now was for Birdsville. The Birdsville Track of course is the subject of much conversation because many city folk and others set off for the Birdsville Races that are coming up in the first week of September. The track is not difficult but the remoteness means you should not go out there unprepared, but they do. There is a memorial (that cannot be reached) to the Page family, who, in 1963, perished having broken down about 100kms south of Birdsville. They had left their car and gone in search of water (they were found over a month later in different places), breaking one of the cardinal rules. Surprisingly they were local people from Marree and would have surely known the risks they were taking, in December. They are buried out there, all five of them. Whilst in a morbid frame of mind, and in a similar vein, we were told in Innamincka of a family of four who two or three years ago got into trouble. A pilot spotted the square white patch that was all that was visible of the roof of their Land Cruiser, many kilometres off the main track, in the dunes where the wind had covered them for over eighteen months. All were there.

As you start north from Marree, and travel just 27 kms, you come to Lake Harry. The old station there had a long history with the cameleers, but became big news when a
date palm plantation was set out in the 1890’s. A bold experiment that perhaps ought to have worked, but there’s not a sign of the 2622 trees they planted. A lot more money was allocated in 1910 by the SA Government and a bore was sunk that provides piping hot water at a well head that serves the cattle that are still occasionally watered on this old stock route. All has come to nothing however, and the place is a sad ruin today. What is special though, is the solitary hot shower head that stands proudly over its tilted old concrete base. We leapt at the opportunity, stripped off and enjoyed a grand wet down regardless of passing traffic. There are several bores along the route. At the half way point we stopped for a night at Mungerannie Hotel. A well equipped pub with good facilities and excellent camping along the wetlands which are created by an artesian outflow, it is an essential stopover on the Track.

We were told a sad tale at the Mirra Mitta bore, that rushes out of its pipe at 98C and creates a wetland that goes for over a kilometre. The tour buses stop here. Last year a touring toy dog was being given some relief when it slipped in and boiled on the spot. Oh dear.

Northwards again, we kept working away at the 515kms of the Birdsville, passing through the dog fence again, along the route taken for many years by Tom Kruse, who carried the Royal Mail up from Marree. In the bad flood years, and there were several in the early fifties, the Coo
per Creek spreads 5 kms wide and closed off the country for months at a time. Kruse had a truck on both sides and a steel punt named the MV Tom Brennan (12 feet long) was used to carry everything across the swirling creek. Stock included. For Helen her new passion for things botanical continues and grows. She was grumpy when we sailed past a fenced area containing rare Mt Glason Acacia that she read about several kilometres past. Her diary is full of lists of plant species and birds spotted.

The open gibber plain turns redder and the sand dunes appear. Here the Tirari, Strzelecki, and Sturt Ston
y deserts meet. Old Mulka Homestead and Mulka Store, again in ruins now, appears on the left. Here George Aiston ran a general store that served the country around. He did well selling water that he leased from the government who had sunk a bore. Drought finished him, but he managed to trade for several decades before dying in the 1940’s. He corresponded with scientists and others on a wide range of topics, all over the world. The interior photographs showing his living room and his rare collection of armoury, swords and pistols, are extraordinary as you stand amongst the rubble now and consider how lives have changed. Finally the dunes scale down a little and the water tower of Birdsville appears on the horizon amongst welcome trees. We have arrived...where are Max and Linda?