Thursday, August 18, 2011

West into the NT

11 August - Bush Camp Near Longreach

Four days into our Central Australia Adventure and we've had just about all the adventure we can take for now!

Day one was a real thriller. Just outside Toowoomba, we were alerted to a flat tyre on the van by passing motorists. Not in time, however, to prevent the tyre and the rim being seriously mangled. This was not a new experience for us. All we can put it down to is the many months that our caravan stands idle in the carport between trips. After a quick, but expensive, stop at Beaurepairs, we were back on the road, heading west towards Miles. Hardly had we settled back into the peaceful swish of a new tyre on the bitumen, than - 'Whack!' - a stone banged into the windscreen. No little reparable chip this time – we already have a nice constellation of stars across the windscreen – this time we hit the big time with a dint about the size of a fifty cent piece. 'Shattered' by all of this, we pulled up for the night by Dogwood Creek, just outside Miles. Reaching for a beer, we discovered that the fridges had been off for most of the afternoon! Somehow, the van's battery hadn't been charging as we drove along. No lights, no water pump, not even the CD player to cheer us!

Undaunted, 'cause the gas was still working, we cooked our dinner by the light of a couple of flickering torches and retired.

Greeted by a bracing 2C inside the van the next morning, we were a little slow off the mark for the long haul to Emerald, where we were to stay with family for a couple of days. All was well though. As the day progressed, we began to regain some confidence, managing the 600 plus klm journey just in time to miss the twilight onslaught of kangaroos and emu that make driving in the late afternoon and at night such a life-threatening experience in the west.

Next day was a sheer delight, amusing and being amused by our three youngest nieces and enjoying the hospitality of their parents.

Traffic along most of our route has been unusually heavy compared to previous journeys through the central west. The mining boom is in full swing. Heavy transports, moving everything from whole houses to machine parts, roar along the highways 24/7. Coal and gas are the big earners in this area and $ billions of investment are changing the face of once-sleepy country towns like Emerald. Some farmers in the area are opposed to mining, claiming that valuable farming land is being sacrificed for mining. This argument is a bit hard to swallow when you see the amount of open country through the Central Highlands and the minuscule amount of land scarred by mining.

Our camp tonight is a nice isolated spot a kilometre or so off the highway. So far, we seem to have fully-charged batteries and we are just about to open the fridge to test the beer temperature.

14 August – Bush Camp WWII Airfield west of Mt Isa

Leaning steel telegraph poles are sometimes the only break in the almost endless Mitchell Grass plains of the north west of Queensland. They stand as a yet another reminder of just how much and how little the Australian landscape has changed within the life spans of most of the thousands of grey nomads who share our camps on the road. The poles are the remnants of the old telephone network that linked rural and outback communities through the decades from the 50's through to the late 1970s. The wires are gone and many of the poles have fallen or been removed, to be re-used in fences or whatever uses the resourceful people of rural Australia could find for them. These thoughts wander through our minds as we bob along, heading towards the Northern Territory border. It's been a good wet season and the grass has a rich, sandy colour that beautifully contrasts with the low red, rocky ranges that bring some relief to the apparent monotony of the landscape.

Today, mobile phone towers and microwave repeaters keep communities so connected that, in some ways, life in the cities and life in small hamlets like McKinley, where we spent last night, are not all that different. In the 1930s, pedal-wireless communication, using Morse code, maintained a tenuous link among the hearty souls whose parents had pioneered these remote areas.

Good times come and go in these towns. Fluctuations in the wool, cotton or cattle markets once meant a cycle of boom and bust. Smaller places like Winton, Barcaldine, Julia Creek and many others in the north west, have levelled out this cycle and thrived, largely due to an entrepreneurial spirit that has capitalised on the fascination Australians have for their rural history. Streets are lined with caravans and campers and grey nomads sip coffee in trendy cafes.

The drovers have gone. Road Trains move cattle and sheep now, but the spirit of the Stockmen still lingers. It was Mt Isa rodeo weekend as we pulled into town today. Big hats and bigger belt buckles are all the rage these days. Far more American than authentic Australian, but who are we to lecture the boys from the bush? The world is a very different place than it was when the cheery souls camped around us tonight were in their prime.

This particular site is a deserted WWII airfield, now reclaimed by the bush. No sign remains of what, just 70 years ago, was a major staging field for American B17s on their way to the Pacific. We visited a similar airfield near Daly Waters in the Northern Territory last year. The hangars there were still standing and there were a few faded photographs of war-time operations, with hundreds of planes lined up ready for action. Much the same would have been the scene here during the war. Today, just the bush and several dozen caravans mark the site.

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