Thursday, September 8, 2011

Western NSW

1 September - Bush Camp 60 km West of Cobar

Not a lot of excitement on the road today, just a long haul, with more to come as we cross the far western plains of New South Wales. We are literally at the 'Back of Bourke,' heading North East towards more civilised climes.

Our only stop today was in the once-grand town of Wilcannia, a ghost town in the making if there ever was one! Some beautiful stone public buildings are well-maintained as government offices. The remainder of the town is gradually crumbling away. Businesses have moved out, leaving blocks of vandalised buildings in what was once a thriving Darling River town. Very sad!

2 September – Barwon River bank

Six months ago, while travelling in South Africa, we commented, perhaps a little unkindly on the level of security in South African towns. We noted at the time that some towns seemed to have far less need for security in both commercial and domestic areas that others. Over the past couple of days we have seem much the same thing in western NSW. Places like Wilcannia and Burke are not much different to South African towns of the same size. Burnt-out buildings, roller-shutters on shops and barbed wire compounds. On the other hand, Cobar is thriving, open and apparently far safer than its two neighbours. No shutters or barbed-wire there.

One has to wonder why the difference?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rockets in the Desert

29 August - Bush Camp, 30 km west of NSW Border

The railway line near our camp is reasonably busy for such a remote location, with trains hauling minerals from Broken Hill to Port Pirie. The Barrier Highway through here to Broken Hill is a bit of a 'rat run' for traffic between Adelaide, Alice Springs and Sydney. Consequently, we have tucked ourselves well back in the bush, away from the road and the railway line. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but we didn't count on the sheep that have now found us and bleat intermittently from the scrub.

In South Australia, the weather and news people constantly refer to the 'agricultural areas'. When you travel south from the desert, it becomes obvious what they are referring to. The thin band of civilisation that skirts the coastline is a dramatic change from the long, lonely, flat stretches of road to the north. All of a sudden there are towns - real towns - with houses and shops, quite different to the desert settlements that are mostly just the usual Roadhouse and a few derelict houses.

Somewhere very different again was Woomera. Located 8km from the highway a couple of hundred kms north of Port Augusta., it is a distinctly odd town. Built just after WWII as a missile test range, it played a major part in the British missile program. It was also the site of the launch of Australia's first satellite in 1964. Shot into orbit on a surplus US rocket, it was still a great feat, putting Australia 4th after Russia, the US and France to put a satellite into orbit.

The streets of Woomera are wide, the houses uniform – it could be a nice town and very large by central Australian standards.. But it lacks a soul. Very military-base. Granted, we blew in on a Sunday and could have had a game of football or basketball on those wide streets if we'd chosen, with no fear of traffic, vehicular or pedestrian, but there was more to it than that. Houses have metal shutters, mostly drawn, few cars were in driveways, no clothes drying in the yards. There are sporting facilities, community centres, a pool, all the modern amenities, but no people? Moth-balled perhaps? Yet one is left with the feeling that the place has an extremely interesting past. A spooky present and an uncertain future.

Another minor disaster was averted yesterday when we somehow managed to smell burning, as we plodded along the road at our regular 83km/hr. A quick inspection of the wiring in the van exposed a melted pile of plastic and wires that once was the switching board for the 12V system.

Nasty but not 'terminal'! We spent the night in a caravan park in Port Augusta so we were able to manage some running repairs and, so far, all seems well with our electrics.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Wild Wild West

27 August - Bush Camp, 120km South of Coober Pedy

It's a long haul from Yulara to our next real taste of civilisation, Port Augusta, SA. Most stopping points on the 1300 kms between Alice Springs and Adelaide comprise no more than a Roadhouse and a few Dongers that serve as a “motel”. The opal mining town of Coober Pedy, better known locally as “Coober”, is a bit of an exception. In fact, Coober is an exception to almost every rule! Rising out of the desert as you approach town, are thousands of white, pyramid-shaped mullock heaps. The whole area looks like a massive, 19th Century, tented army camp.

Coober itself is a real frontier settlement. Broken machinery litters the town – trucks, mining machinery and broken-down cars are just pushed aside and replaced. Trucks from the 1950s, still fitted out with mining rigs, rust in the dry, white, desert dust.

Today, the temperature was a pleasant 27C but, in a few months, it will rise to the mid 40s Celsius. Coober is one of the hottest towns, in the driest part of the driest continent on the planet. Much of the town is underground. Homes, churches and businesses operate out of caverns carved out of the solid, opal-bearing sandstone.

Apocalyptic movies like Mad Max were shot around here. The desert and the crazy landscaping created by over a century of mining, have created the perfect environment for out of this world scenes.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Rock

25 August Uluru

Four symbols probably come to most of us as truly 'Iconic Australian' images. The Kangaroo, Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and Ayres Rock/Uluru. We have seen three of the four many times, but they still capture our imagination and particularly when we are away they ARE Australia. Uluru is new to us but so well known we feel we have been here before. We just can't take our eyes of it. It is truly monumental.

Sadly the wonderful Olgas, just 50 kms away are often ignored. They too are just magnificent. This is one of those – let the pictures tell the story sort of places... And yes we did climb the Rock and walked right around it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Uluru and the Olgas

21 August - Bush Camp at Salt Creek, 100 odd kms from Kings Canyon

Very near our destination of Uluru now, just a short, 300km detour to Kings Canyon today and tomorrow. Many people are surprised that Uluru is not actually at Alice Springs. Have a look at a map! It is a fair haul south west, but the roads in the NT are very good, particularly considering the light traffic they carry.

For once, this camp is not overly crowded. Just three other travellers have pulled in by sunset. There is a real protocol to these camps. The 'done thing' is to stroll about and greet a few fellow campers. Often paths have crossed before and acquaintances from previous camps are welcomed like long-lost friends. People are universally pleasant and friendly. Travel stories are swapped, technical details of caravan and tow vehicle rigs are compared and discussed in some detail. And yes, there is a certain amount of “mine is bigger than yours”. Not too much of a problem for us, 'cause our van is always the smallest around. Many Nomads have rigs that would easily top the $150K price tag.

According to statisticians, the real Baby Boom only started this year. What they have missed in their calculations are the hordes of early retirees like us who have been on the trail for a few years now. What will it be like in the next few years when those who have waited it out until 65 to retire, hit the road?

22 August – Kings Canyon Resort – $$

Disasters never seem to happen in isolation. They love to team up and attack us in two or threes. Admittedly, our first problem this morning wasn't actually ours. Around the camp fire last night, we had made the acquaintance of a mixed bag of European backpackers, travelling in a beat-up old Mazda van. There was a young French guy who was riding his bicycle from Darwin to Adelaide but found it too cold at night, a scruffy-looking Austrian and his Slovak girlfriend. Not as bad as they sound, they were out of luck this (or maybe in luck) morning. Their van had a fuel pump problem, or at least that was the professional diagnosis of the Nomads (including us) who tried to get them started. To cut to the chase, the scruffy Austrian rode on with us the 120 kms into Kings Canyon to seek help. BUT, just 20 km down the road... bang, thump, we had another flat, on the car this time.

After consulting the RACV on the phone and the local Mr Fix-it at Kings Canyon, our scruffy Austrian friend decided on the very expensive option of a tow from the RACV into Yulara. A tow of some 300 kms. He was eventually able to hitch a ride from Kings Canyon back to his mates, left behind at the Salt Creek Rest Area, to meet the tow truck, although for a while there it looked as though we were going to have to drive him back. To put all this in context, for those who have never been here, Kings Canyon is basically a caravan park, motel/hostel and a Roadhouse.
All was eventually well with our tyre, which was repaired by a tag team of an Indian and Kiwi in the rough, but fairly efficient, outback 'tyre emporium' of Kings Canyon. We then checked into the caravan park (only our third since leaving home) and spent a pleasant afternoon clambering around the 6 km Kings Canyon rim walk. This walk is highly recommended – tough to begin with – climbing up to the top of the canyon, but amazing views once you get there, plus that thrill you get when you've achieved something that has been described as “difficult” in half the time suggested.

Yet another tough day at the office.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Around the Alice

19 August - Alice Springs

Bush fires raged all around “The Alice” as we made the long haul south, down the Stuart Highway to the legendary city at the centre of Australia. After one of the wettest summers in a lifetime right across the continent, the 'red heart' is decidedly grassy rather than ochre red. The dried-out grasses provide an enormous fuel load to feed fires and, with a few days of gusty south-easterlies to help, thousands of square kms of the centre have been ablaze. Bush fires in this country don't pose as much of a threat as those in more densely wooded areas in the south east of the continent, but all the same, they are a force to be respected. Smoke was the main threat to our travels. The highway had been closed for several hours in the past couple of days, but we were not held up at all.

Alice Springs is one of those places that really makes you wonder why? Why it was settled in the first place and why it grew and continues to thrive. With a population of more than 25 thousand, it is a fair sized city by Australian standards, particularly given its location 1500 kms from Adelaide and about the same distance from Darwin. In fact, it could be called the navel of Australia.

When the Americans arrived in Australia in 1942, they were astounded to discover that it wasn't possible to move their troops and equipment by rail from Adelaide to Darwin. The line stopped in Alice Springs. Even the road north to Darwin was little more than a track, until the Australian Army improved the road in 1941. It wasn't a sealed highway until the 1970s.

We arrived in town just in time to snag one of the last spots in one of the caravan parks. Nomads are here in force and the Henley-on-Todd Regatta is on this weekend. More on this iconic event later!

To the west and east of the city, the MacDonnell Ranges stretch for several hundred kms. On the seemingly endless plains of central Australia, these rugged red hills are simply spectacular! After such a good season, the water holes in the gorges are still full, reflecting the pure white river gums and the red of the ranges. Albert Namatjira captured these landscapes in his famous water colours. An interesting case was Albert. It will probably shock most Australians to know that he was the first Aborigine to be granted citizenship. That's right. Aboriginal Australians were not considered citizens until the early 1970s. This meant they had extremely limited rights. They couldn't vote or buy alcohol. Even Albert was considered a ward of the state prior to his citizenship and his family were not accorded that same right.

Namatjira's art perfectly captures the beauty of the remarkable landscapes of central Australia. It is art that westerners accepted and valued. His paintings are worth a small fortune today.

On the subject of aboriginal art. Not wishing to be politically incorrect, but we just don't get it! To be fair, we don't 'get' a lot of modern art either. What was Jackson Pollock on about, for example? The nicely arranged dots and lines of some indigenous art do have some aesthetic appeal, but to be honest, the underlying stories depicted in these works require more than a small stretch of the imagination. We just put it down to a cultural difference. What really amuses us is listening to the non-aboriginal art aficionados who frequent the these art galleries. They pretend to 'get it'! Right. That series of dots depicts the day the widgree people were walking along a dry creek bed and saw several birds eating the seeds of the giant omidee palm... and then they lit a fire and sat in a circle while the women gathered sticks for the fire. As we say – it must be a cultural thing and maybe we just don't have any!

The Henley-on-Todd Regatta is billed as an Outback Iconic event and that it was! A morning parade up the Todd Mall in the centre of the Alice led the crowd of probably close to 4000 down to the dry bed of the Todd River. Boat races of all types filled in most of the day. Locals loved it. Tourists got right into it and at the end of the long afternoon, three large 'ships' fought it out on the river bed. It was run like a real regatta, but without the water. A great day of outback entertainment including that provided by the crowd!

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.