The Great Oz Walkabout - Continues!
October 2013 -- Website Update: We left the mainland USA in late December 2012, after months of planning a grand walkabout in Australia. Christmas 2012 was celebrated on the island of Saipan in the Marianas chain and after New Year's we visited the islands of Tinian, Guam, Yap and Palau before flying to Cairns, Australia. We had been researching used motor-homes in Australia for months and planned to purchase same for use in our "Great Oz Walkabout".
I have re-ordered the daily entries into time order, moved the trip-logs to a new page and you will find the link to the right (click on the white bus picture).
Meanwhile, we have moved the trip-logs of our sailing circumnavigation down a level and you will find the link to the right (click on the S/V DoodleBug picture to get to the "old" web-site).
We have also "cleaned up" the sailing logs and reformatted them into .epub files, so that they may be downloaded and read at your convenience on an iPad or Kindle reader as "e-books". Because there are about 6,000 embedded photos in the original website, I needed to split the log of the cruise into 18 "volumes". To date, I have tested these eBook files on both a "Kindle Fire" and an "iPad3". Click right on the "books" icon to access the files for download.
January 20, 2015
A later start this morning but we gained another hour, just for crossing the border into Queensland. Today was pleasant drive through fields stretching to the horizon, the view only interrupted by clustered grain silos. Our destination was to the south of Brisbane at the Gold Coast Holiday Park and we rolled in at 4:00 p.m. after a 2,100 kilometer dash from the Melbourne Ferry. We have rented a cabin at this park and now face the labor and logistics of making our bus presentable, so that it can be sold and somehow getting the stuff we have accumulated over the 10 months we have spent in Australia, into suitcases that fit the airline restrictions of quantity and weight.
This part of our trip is now over and what an adventure it has been! Australia’s highway one circumnavigates the continent in a distance of 16,000 kms. (10,000 miles) We have driven our motor-home nearly three times this distance, having made almost two complete circumnavigations, plus crossing the continent north to south, twice. This is an amazing place to visit and we will long remember its beauty, its variety and the warmth and friendship of its people. Australia, we thank you for this experience.
January 19, 2015
Another dawn departure, continuing our mission to get to the Brisbane area. We stopped for night at a caravan park in Coonabarrabran, a town in Warrumbungle Shire, where we could recharge the laptop and get a shower with unlimited hot water.
January 18, 2015
Today we took the ferry back to mainland Australia. The marine forecast promised 2 to 3 meter waves (up to 10 feet wind driven waves on top of a 10 foot swell) but this was a non-event. We saw six foot waves that wouldn’t have spilled the Chardonnay aboard S/V DoodleBug and we arrived in Melbourne almost on schedule, with two cruise-ships blocking the arrival dock. From here, we headed north out of Melbourne City, blessing the light Sunday evening traffic. It is hard enough navigating a transit of a four million population city without having most of the four million get in your way.
We had rested during the ferry passage and wanted to get some miles behind us, when we noticed fresh road-kill on the side of motorway. Then Annette spotted kangaroos grazing in a field and we decided the collision risk factor had increased too much. We pulled into a rest stop at “Grass Tree”, some seven miles north of Seymour and about 80 miles from the Melbourne pier, where we camped for the night.
January 17, 2015
We had spent the night at the local caravan park at Beauty Point and in the morning headed down the highway to visit the Mining Museum at Beaconsfield. This was the site of the 2006 ANZAC Day mine disaster and rescue. The Beaconsfield mine was a working gold mine and seventeen men were working below when a minor earthquake caused a roof collapse. Fourteen men escaped unharmed, one man was killed and two others were trapped for two weeks in a tiny space. At the time the world watched the drama as the rescuers blasted rock to reach the trapped men and then cut a 50 foot tunnel through rock reputed to be five times harder than concrete. For us this was the first we were aware of this event, because at the time we were aboard S/V DoodleBug, anchored in the Endeavour River at Cooktown, waiting on repairs to a torn Genoa and without television or internet access.
The museum was interesting in that until 2012 this was a working mine and much of the equipment is intact and in place. There was a an investigation into the cause of the accident, safety violations claimed and the mine subsequently closed with the loss of 150 jobs.
January 16, 2015
From Rosebery, the highway ran east crossing the Murchison Range, dropping down into Tullah and then turning north to follow the west side of the lake formed by the damming of the Mackintosh River. We then ran into road-works, the road deteriorating into gravel and then dirt, as we worked our way up and over a mountain pass. It was raining hard and the road surface felt slippery in the slick mud. We plunged down the northern slopes towards the coastal town of Burnie, the road again paved and much smoother running. Our bus is trashed! Covered on both sides with a cream colored mud to near roof level. The rear windows were opaque and Annette worked hard with a squeegee to find the glass underneath when we stopped for diesel.
The winds were gusty with occasional rain squalls promising misery out at sea, when we arrived at the coast at Burnie. The internet link to, “What is there to see in Burnie” claimed “penguins” - but only after dusk. We had other plans. We picnicked near the beach, with the bus rocking in the wind, then made a brief expedition to the sand. We saw no penguin tracks, nor signs they had burrowed into the coarse scrub blanketing the hillside. Annette began to gather rocks on the beach but the wind from the sea was both cold and biting. I returned to the RV to add clothing and a glance out of the bus window showed me my bride was not far behind me.
From Burnie we headed east to “Beauty Point”, home to “Seahorse World”. I had remembered to add a “tether” to my hat, which was fortunate as the wind whipped it from my head. Fortunately, the exhibits were all indoors. Seahorse World was approved by the Australian Government and the United Nations (how much was that payoff!) to breed endangered species of seahorses in captivity. The seahorses are then sold around the world for use in aquariums, thus reducing the pressure of commercial capture from the natural habitat. These are amazing “fish” and when I look at the variants of Leafy Sea Dragons, I cannot help but wonder how creatures this bizarre could have evolved. We next visited the adjacent Duck Billed Platypus and Echidna display. The platypus display was pretty similar to other displays we have seen in various zoos. The creatures are reclusive, which is how they have survived in the wild. The fact that the males have poison spurs on their hind legs also means that “up close” viewing of the animal is not possible. Far more fun was the echidna display. Our tour group sat in a circle on the floor of the echidna pen and they walked around and between us. The keeper placed small bowls of “bug butter” in front of us and we got to watch the echidnas scarfing this stuff down. They have the most amazing tongue, skinny and about six inches long. It flickered out and seemed to wrap across the food bowl, curled over the brim and cleaned off the sides, all in one swipe.
A century ago this sleepy village of Beauty Point was the third largest town in Tasmania, a port on the Tamar River serving the gold rush. I was pleased to note that the town received its name after a favorite cow that drowned here.
January 15, 2015
Daughter Marian had wanted Annette to take some pictures of road-kill (strange child!), such as close up pictures of feet and claws, the type of picture you can’t usually get at zoo. I didn’t want to join these casualties as additional road-kill, thus I scoured the highway ahead of us for the combination of “fresh” road-kill and a safe place to park off the highway. About twenty minutes out of New Norfolk, I found the spot and pulled over and off the roadway. I watched carefully for traffic in both directions while Annette jumped out of the bus with her camera. She decided to pull the carcass of the small wallaby, or “Pademelon”, from the center of the roadway to the verge and as she did so, the pouch moved. Annette checked the contents of the pouch and found a single baby, who objected strongly to being molested and struggled to stay in the pouch. The mother was dead with massive head injuries but Annette examined the tiny hairless Joey and announced that it appeared to be uninjured.
While cursing Marian under my breath, I fired up the computer to find a number for a wildlife rescue organization, while Annette heated water in order to generate a warm, moist environment for the orphan. Next followed a two hour high speed run along rain-slick, two-lane mountain roads to the village of Derwent Bridge. The road was a continuous string of steep hills, plunging descents with hairpin bends and I felt as though I was rowing the bus through the gears, with the exhaust brake howling as we descended. Finally we arrived at a café called “The Hungry Wombat” and our charge was dropped off for collection later that day by a lady who worked with the Bonorong Wildlife Rescue. We drove considerably slower when we left the café and headed, perhaps a kilometer, to our original destination of “The Wall”.
The Wall is a project by Tasmanian wood sculptor Greg Duncan to depict the history of Tasmania in a series of 100 linked panels. The panels are each three meters high (10 feet) and a meter width, thus the completed project will be 50 meters long (164 feet) with panels on both sides of “The Wall”. Greg is a wonderfully skilled sculptor and his subjects include the development of hydro-electric power, the lumber industry, as well as environmental issues such as the recent extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger and threatened species such as the Tasmanian Wedge-tailed eagle. We met the artist at the door as he confiscated Annette’s camera. He promised to return it however and said Annette could take his picture outside the gallery. I suggested that he adopt the procedure I had witnessed in Alice Springs, when a tourist asked an aboriginal man if he could take his picture. “Four dollars” was the aboriginal’s response and the tourist walked away. The Wall is a labor of love and the attention to texture and detail remarkable. An excellent stop.
We continued our journey to the northwest of Tasmania with a leisurely drive to the mining town of Rosebery. Gold was discovered here in 1893 with the main ore body being zinc. Today, zinc, lead, copper, silver and gold are all produced here. The campsite was next to the river and all night we could hear the sound of the falls and rapids. Despite the infrastructure of mines, cables and machinery, the town remains a gem, hidden in a deep and green valley.
The lady managing the caravan park promised to mail used stamps to Annette for her collection. However her joy was tempered by the fact the Bonorong Wildlife Rescue lady hadn’t telephoned a status update and Annette is now worrying about her pademelon, we had named, “Dallas”.
January 14, 2015
We forced ourselves awake because our goal this morning was to see Tasmanian Devils being fed at the Tasmanian Devil Sanctuary. It was still raining when we left the campsite and we drove through light rain and empty roads until we found the empty car park of the sanctuary. A lady swathed in a rain-jacket waved at us and wished us “good morning”, so we knew then it was open. As it turned out, only some of the trails were open but we saw a display of possums and then attended a lecture on Tasmanian Devils, with a pair of Devils performing in the background. The Devil’s appeared to be “fighting” for possession of a chunk of wallaby, our lecturer had dropped into their enclosure. They sounded as though they were in a death struggle but we were assured that this behavior is normal for Devils and they do share their meal.
We learned that Devils are meat eaters and lousy hunters. They can’t sprint, have poor eyesight and they aren’t that big (around 18 pounds), thus they are scavengers. As the largest surviving carnivorous marsupial, they eat every part of a corpse – flesh, skin, bones, fur, teeth and guts and when they are finished, they lap up the blood. Farmers are ambivalent towards them in that will take sick animals but on a positive (?) note, if an animal drops dead in the field, the farmer can let it lay, because in a few days it will be gone. The devils “share” a meal with other devils and since a dead cow is too big to eat in one session, they will set up camp in the interior of the carcass and eat it from the inside out. One farmer reported finding a dozen Devils inside the carcass of a cow. Annette thought that this would make a great Tasmanian Christmas song, “.... and 12 Devils in a dead cow....”.
There is an infectious form of cancer that is currently decimating the population. The wildlife people in Tasmania are executing a plan to quarantine a healthy population (on the Port Arthur peninsula), let the disease burn out in the infected population and then restore the Devils throughout Tasmania from this isolated group.
It was still raining when we left the Devil’s Sanctuary and headed on into Port Arthur to tour the “Separate Prison”. This prison was the maximum security prison in the Tasmanian system and was located on the remote peninsula where we were, as it had no road access at the time. The punishment for the worst offenders had been changed from physical to mental and the method used was solitary confinement and silence, very much like the system the French used as described by Henri Charriere in his book, “Papillion”. On the same site was a “Boys prison”, a sort of “Borstal” or “reform school” for boys aged 9 to 17 years, the average age being 14. These boys were too puny and underdeveloped to be of any use in the forced labor camps and the authorities had been at a loss as to where to put them. We took a boat ride to visit the surrounding islets and heard that when prisoners did attempt to escape by land, there was a “dog line” at the neck of the peninsula with a garrison of soldiers. Guard dogs were chained at intervals across the narrow strip of land and the dog line even extended a distance offshore, with dogs chained on floating platforms to alert the soldiers.
From Port Arthur we drove northwest, stopping at the town of New Norfolk for the night. The caravan park was on the banks of the Derwent River and we walked into town beside the river, to find a restaurant, while dodging the copious quantities of duck shit along the river bank. The ducks didn’t seem to mind the rain and watched us warily as we perambulated by.
January 13, 2015
This morning we headed over to visit the shot tower, at Taroona near Hobart. The shot tower was completed in 1870 by Joseph Moir. Joe saw a business opportunity in that Australia was importing lead shot from England in order to make cartridges for shotguns, a necessity for bird and rabbit hunters. He knew some of the basics of the 19th century technology to make lead shot, in that you pour molten lead through a colander and let the drops fall through air into water. He built the tower we were visiting from blocks of sandstone to a height of 190 feet. Then he spent months experimenting until he had discovered the secrets of making round lead shot. For over 100 years this was the tallest building in Tasmania and we pulled our bus into the parking lot to find it filled. We followed the driveway around until we had completed a loop and faced a steep hill and an “exit” sign. Where the hell was the overflow car-park? After a few minutes scouting, we gave up and I parked the bus on the side of the driveway. The climb to the top of the tower involved 318 steps to reach an open gallery with a 360 degree view across Storm Bay and also a view of our bus and the overflow car-park, which lies hidden, beyond the exit sign.
Our next destination was the Hobart women’s prison called the “Female Factory”. We paid for the tour and were the only attendees of the great lecture given by guide, Ester. From 1610 onwards, Britain disposed of undesirables, who had offended the authorities in either criminal or political manner by transporting them to the new colonies. The American Revolution of the 1770’s cut off the North American destination and Captain Cook had reported that the Botany Bay area near Sydney might be suitable for colonization. The transportation pipeline therefore switched to Australia and over the next 80 years, some 165,000 people were transported to various penal colonies on the Australian continent.
When you consider that Britain had a population of around 7 million at the time, this represents about 2.3% of the population. If we take 2.3% of the population of the USA today, that calculates out as about 7.5 million, a number that matches closely with the total number of people currently in prison, on parole or under probation in the USA. What a great way to get rid of the trouble-makers and how cost-effective! Transportation was considered more humane than execution and in 1770, some 222 offences bore the death penalty, including for example, stealing goods worth over 5 shillings (60 cents at todays exchange rate), cutting down a tree, or theft of a rabbit from a rabbit warren.
Some 20% of the transportees were women and although I had assumed that many were repeat offender street walkers, this was not the case, as prostitution was not a transportable offence at the time. For many, the crime would more likely be pick-pocketing, theft, arson and the like. The prison guards were almost exclusively men, thus in the early days of colonization and until the first Australian gold rush, most of the available females were either convict transportees, or aboriginal women.
It is fairly obvious that the British authorities intended on establishing their class system in their new colony (For American readers, this is: At the top, aristocrats and landed gentry; next the merchant class, the people who owned businesses and farms; below them the people who worked in a “trade” such as masons, carpenters, plumbers and then at the bottom, the working class, the laborers, maids and gardeners. I will interject an anecdote here. My younger brother Anthony Steele, graduated from Cambridge University, one of the top universities in England, with an Honors Degree in Mathematics. He qualified as a member of the Royal Society of Chartered Accountants and went to work for the prestigious firm of Deloitte and Touche as an auditor. At an early performance review, circa 1975, he was told by his senior management that, “although his job performance was very good, they seriously doubted that he would be able to overcome his working-class background”. He quit and went on to become the youngest Professor in the British Isles) The female transportees were housed in the factory we were viewing, sort of a low security prison. While the women served out their respective sentences, they were trained as domestics and taught skills such as laundry, sewing, cooking and housekeeping. Many were sent out to work in the cabins of the early colonists, at no charge to the colonist. Naturally many of these women became pregnant but this too was a punishable offence and the penalty was a return to the “factory” and separation from their child. An early scandal was that some 75% of these children born to transportees died in infancy and it was not until the children of “other” colonist women, incarcerated here for “local” crimes, began to suffer the same fate, a public outcry forced the improvement of nursery conditions. A hard life but arguably a better one than the one left behind in the industrial slums of nineteenth century Britain.
We couldn’t leave Tasmania and Hobart without a tour of the Cascade Brewery. The brewery tour was a more an “outback” experience than other brewery tours we have been on, mainly because it is the oldest continually operating brewery in Australia, opened in 1832. You could fill books with the brief history of the brewery buildings but for us the most enjoyable story was the one wherein a fermentation tower was ordered from Zurich and when it finally arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, it was found to be too tall for the three story, stone building. An additional three stories had to be added on so that it would fit inside. Didn’t they check the specs on the internet first?
We drove carefully from the brewery, to downtown Hobart to the dock that is the termination of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. There was a very large ketch S/V Selma (66 feet length – double the volume of S/V DoodleBug at 53 feet) alongside the dock taking on supplies. While I was off in search of an ATM, Annette chatted with one of crew. They are heading for Antarctica (see http://www.selmaexpeditions.com/en/selma.php) We suggested that their destination sucked, because there are no coconut trees in Antarctica and critiqued their selection of supplies they were loading, pointing out that they had forgotten the beer. The crewman maintained that it was too cold for beer and we know this to be true because years ago, we watched the movie, “Never Cry Wolf”. Vodka and Rum would be a better choice.
We left Hobart heading for the Tasmanian Devil Sanctuary in Port Arthur, along a long, hilly and winding road down the peninsula. To add to the fun, it began to rain but we were encouraged because we saw for the first time, road signs warning of Tasmanian Devils. We must be going in the right direction! We hadn’t made any bookings but managed to score the last powered caravan site at the Port Arthur Holiday Park. Clean livin’, matey!
January 12, 2015
This morning we bade farewell to Glen. We would have said “goodbye and thank you” to Kelly but she had already left for work whilst we slumbered on. It was a pretty drive to Hobart with a picture postcard perfect day and light traffic on the winding lanes. Our Tom-Tom GPS was still feeling mischievous and took us down a gravel road but she still managed to find Hobart and we arrived at “Treasure Island” caravan park, a somewhat bleak and windswept place that would have probably made Morgan and Long John Silver turn tail. We spent the balance of the day catching up with chores and e-mails.
January 11, 2015
What an exciting day! We began the day by watching Glen feed a young bull in the pen next to a couple of sick alpacas. Glen has been training the bull to be “handleable” and we watched as he scratched this gentle beast, while I envisaged the homicidal bundles of muscle and rage we had seen a week ago in the Port Fairy rodeo, a slightly mind-bending experience. Once the various invalids such as the sick baby alpacas had been fed, we all set off in a car to tour the area around Westbury.
Westbury is home to “Tasmanian Alkaloids”, a fact we were totally unaware of until Glen pointed out the fields of poppies behind barbed wire fences and garish signs warning of “poison” and “keep out”. Tasmania grows the poppies that produce over half of the world’s opiates and morphine drugs. I have always thought that if such drugs as cocaine and heroin were “decriminalized”, the free countries of the world could bury the illegal drug producers with our agricultural prowess. Just think of the power shifts! The South American cartels would cease to exist. Afghanistan would recede into a the forgotten, fly blown cess-pit that its inhabitants desire. The prisons in the USA would be near empty and we might usefully employ the thousands of overpaid government employees who allegedly “fight” our “drug-war”. I don’t see any downside - Tasmania shows the way!
The scenery in Tasmania is magnificent, the English Lake District without the rain maybe. Purple hills with rugged cliffs as the backdrop to emerald green pastures that almost glow. We climbed the Great Western Tiers mountain range up to the Central Plateau or Central Highlands. This is an area of lakes and a series of these bodies of water were used for the earliest hydro electric plants. We stopped for a fine lunch at lakeside pub and shortly thereafter visited the “Steppes Stones”, a bush grotto containing thirteen stones bearing bronzes by artist Stephen Walker. The stones are arranged in a circle around a central stone, somewhat like the numerals on a huge clock. The site was almost hidden and you had to know it was there to discover it. From the stone circle, we walked a trail to the Steppe’s homestead. Annette was so excited on the trail when Glen identified scat that she had found as “Tasmanian Devil” poo.
From the Steppe’s homestead we moved on to visit the Waddamana Power Station Museum. The Waddamana power station was the first to produce power for Hobart, Tasmania, beginning operations in 1916. The project to use the water from the waters of “Great Lake” was the result of a newspaper article published earlier in 1905 detailing the feasibility. Of course construction was a little difficult, due to the total absence of infrastructure and advertisements for labor described the worksite as, “an easy two day walk from Deloraine”. We got to tour the inside of the power plant and see the generators and machinery. I had always thought that the alternators that produce the electricity were given power by the water passing through a kind of radial turbine - like a jet engine. In fact the fancy name of “Pelton wheels” is given to a device that was in use by the ancient Egyptians. Essentially “buckets” are arranged on the circumference of a large wheel (the Egyptians used ceramic jars) and a jet of water turns the wheel at a slow 375 rpm. The alternators looked like a bigger version of an automobile alternator – OK, MUCH bigger, and the direct current power for the field coil came from smaller dynamos. The speed of the bucket wheel and hence the frequency of the electricity, was regulated by a mechanical governor based on centrifugal weights, like you would find on a steam engine. The governor adjusted the force of the water jet, presumably with some kind of valve. The voltage of the output was adjusted by the changing the voltage supplied to the field coils by the dynamos. It all looked so simple in principle but on a huge scale and I admired the engineers who designed and built it. Fascinating place.
On our return, Glen spotted an echidna crossing the highway, slammed on the car brakes, jumped out of the driver’s seat and took off across the highway after it, followed closely by Annette. He somehow caught it between his steel capped work boots, turned it over and lifted it by its feet, so that Annette might photograph the startled beast peeing and defecating from most of its orifices. What great entertainment!
Back at the farm, Kelly prepared for us a wonderful chicken stir fry and while she was creating this masterpiece, we took a walk around the pastures accompanied by Glen and Rosie. Rosie always runs ahead, trying to anticipate the needs of her master. At one point she took off chasing a bunny, a black streak moving at astonishing speed. Glen reluctantly called her back to him because he could not allow a working dog to become distracted by the pleasure of bunny-chasing whilst on the job. She did “head up” the alpacas however and it was entertaining to watch. Now alpacas do kick with their front hooves and will kill smaller predators. Rosie would tear around them and then abruptly stop and lay down, just as you have probably seen sheep dogs perform. The alpacas would back away but then a dominant female would charge at Rosie. If Rosie ran, the whole herd would chase her but they would all stop confusedly if she turned back, as she often did. She was so fast but on a couple of occasions, she was being chased by an alpaca when she would abruptly stop running to sit and scratch herself, not even looking at her pursuer. The alpaca would stop too and wait until she was ready to run again, as though this was part of a familiar game.
On one of the back pastures, Glen and Kelly have a pair of camels. These beasts are huge, with their hump about 8 feet above ground level and the head held much higher. The larger of the animals was a young male and he bent his head down to sniff the top of Annette’s head before sliding his face alongside hers, cheek to cheek. This was not something I was going to experience because Ed’s momma didn’t raise expendable babies. Annette was able to give a command to this camel to “kush” and it sank to its knees so that it could be mounted. Pretty cool, huh? Just as Annette was about to place an order for delivery to Padre Island, Texas, the smaller female camel ("Alice") lashed out with its hind leg, missing Annette by a millimeter. Cancel the order for the camel. We will charge into battle on motorcycles – much safer!
Glen and Kelly were such great hosts and this was a memorable day, a great highlight of our trip.
January 10, 2015
Last night Annette has spotted an antique shop on the way into the town of Latrobe and this morning she scoured the interior, looking for treasures. We hit the grocery store to replace some of the fruit we had been required to jettison to comply with Tasmania’s strict agricultural quarantine laws and then headed over to the Axeman’s Hall of Fame, a facility dedicated to the lumberjacks of yore.
The sport of speed lumber cutting supposedly began in Tasmania in 1870 as a result of a bet and the first wood chopping championship was in 1891 in Latrobe, at the current site of the Axeman’s Hall of Fame. The champions were all huge men - Paul Bunyan sized - tall, wide, thick and muscled, who could cut through logs at incredible speeds but who seemed to die at a relatively young age - thereby proving the point that big guys really shouldn’t climb trees. We had watched the sport “in the flesh” at Mitta-Mitta in 2013 and it is impressive seeing the wood-chips fly. How those guys still have limbs is a mystery to me. The Hall of Fame lies on the banks of the Mersey River, and this river was navigable under certain conditions by sailing ships. The inland port was used as a loading dock for wool and also for lumber, extensively logged in the surrounding area.
We wandered from the Hall of Fame, crossed the River Mersey on a footbridge and took a very pleasant hike through the woods of “Pig island”. This was much prettier than its name and no, we didn’t see any pigs.
We next visited nearby “Sherwood Hall”, the restored home of 1850’s pioneers Thomas Johnson (ex-convict) and Dolly Dalrymple Briggs (part-aboriginal, see: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dalrymple-dolly-12877). Their respective biographies provide an astonishing window into frontier living of early Australia but the event that most affected us was that when Dolly’s husband was away, she heard a noise outside of the family cabin and sent her seven year old daughter to investigate. Aborigines attacked the daughter, pinning her to the doorframe with a spear through the thigh. Dolly wrenched the spear from her child, dragged her inside the cabin and for the next six hours, fought off the aborigines with a musket. For her heroism, the government granted her 20 acres of land at nearby Perth, Tasmania where her husband Johnson built her a cabin. This event barely touches on the lives of these hardy folks and they lived on to be successful local business people. The home they built together known as Sherwood Hall would have been a mansion by the standards of the time and remains an elegant reminder of times past.
We then travelled on to Westbury, to the farm of Glen and his wife Kelly (aka “Ned”) who raise Alpacas. We had met the couple in 2013 at the Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach, Queensland, while they were similarly exploring Australia. Glen and Kelly have 110 acres or so and besides a couple of hundred Alpacas, have a Llama, cattle, two camels and a pair of working dogs – Kelpies “Smudge” and “Rosie”. When we arrived in the farmyard, we were met by the enthusiastic Kelpies and found Glen and Kelly feeding livestock. Since my knowledge of animal husbandry is restricted to the stage where the cooked portions are on my plate, I am always fascinated by this. Kelly fed a couple of baby alpacas generically called “Crias”, the males are “Macho” and the females “Hembre”, or as Annette says, “Cute”. The working dog “Rosie” (“Smudge” is 13 years old and like us, retired) stopped at the entrance to the pen containing the alpacas because she “knows” she isn’t allowed in there. Glen then let Rosie into the paddock containing the adult alpacas and she streaked off to “round them up”. It was funny to see the alpacas chase her because they will attempt to fight a single dog, fox etc. She was amazing to watch as she responded to Glen's single words of command.
We went out to dinner together at a fine restaurant inside the Cataract Gorge Reserve in Launceton. When we had arrived in Tasmania yesterday evening we had been impressed with the quantity of road-kill on the empty lanes but the volume of crepuscular wildlife was totally unexpected. There were wallabies and their ilk, seemingly everywhere and Glen kept up a non-stop specie identification. Supper was excellent and as we left the restaurant, there was a possum perched on the trash can with its nose buried deep in the garbage. Annette had to get really close with her camera before it fled and as we walked back to the car in the darkness, small furry forms scurried and hopped everywhere. What an exciting day!
January 9, 2015
Today was for the ferry from Melbourne to Devonport in Tasmania. We had read that we needed to be at the terminal two and a half hours before our departure, thus it was dark when we left the caravan park. Our “Tom-Tom” brand GPS has a sense of humor and she sent us through what looked like parking lots at the back of townhouses and gated communities. Her joke was easier due to the near total lack of road signs for the ferry. Our freeway exit was actually labeled, “Service Center”. What is this? A government sanctioned whore house? Place to fix your vacuum cleaner? A fill-up and a burger? Amazingly we found the ferry terminal and parked on a tight curve, straddling a painted cross-walk for about 20 minutes behind some other caravans (we based this on our sailboat experience wherein you find the marina / anchorage by looking for all of the masts), until the traffic ahead began to move. Then it was move and wait, move and wait. The brochure we were given warned us to mark our parking position on the ship and so I carefully looked around and wrote down the “G6” painted in four foot tall letters on nearby wall.
We found our assigned “Ocean Recliners” that were like first class airline seats with recline and foot rests but without the trays for your lap-top. The boat left ninety minutes later than scheduled and two hours later we passed through “The Rip”, where we had hiked to yesterday, the exit to the Bass Straits but with no 20 foot breaking seas, just a little chop. I soon fell asleep in my “Ocean Recliner” however my bliss was torn asunder when I was awoken by two security guys to check our tickets. Nobody else was asked. They then thanked me and left. WTF was that about?
The balance of the voyage was calm and finally an announcement told us we had arrived in Devonport, garage levels 3 and 5 were now “open”, garage level 6 and 7 must wait and further, there would be no access to the vehicles until levels 3 and 5 had cleared the vessel. As Annette and I waited, I began to ponder the conflicting fact that after we parked our bus, we had ascended two floors to the “seventh” deck. Seven minus two is still five not six. We decided to check it out and sure enough, our bus was parked safely on the fifth deck, right next to the “G6” sign. What a fiasco that might have been if we had continued to wait, blocking the garage exit for most of the fifth level!
Crisis averted, we drove through the empty streets of Devonport at dusk and found our caravan park near the town of Latrobe. The ferry food had sucked as usual – this is an international rule – and we were hungry, so we headed back out to the village to scavenge for dinner. The only place open was the Hotel and although the kitchen was closed, they were gracious enough to fix us toasted sandwiches that slotted nicely between the glasses of Tasmanian beer. We are here, in the land where it is brewed – Tasmania!
January 8, 2015
This morning we set out for Point Nepean National Park. The city of Melbourne lies on the north side of a huge sheltered bay that is approximately 50 miles across, with 165 miles of shoreline. The south side of the bay is protected by two peninsulas that wrap around, leaving a small navigable gap called “The Rip”. On the east side of the bay entrance was a Fort Nepean, that had guns installed around 1880. I’m not sure what or who the perceived threat was in 1880 but the first shots of WW 1 and WW 2 were fired from here. In 1914 a single shot was fired across the bows of a German freighter as it attempted to leave Australia following the declaration of war. The same thing happened in 1939 but in this case, the ship turned out to be Australian.
In the early days of settlement, limestone was mined here and in 1852 a quarantine holding area was established on the point, that operated until 1980. The other notable event was in 1967 when the Prime Minister of Australia, Harold Holt went swimming off the beach and disappeared, presumed drowned. Can you imagine the media circus if Obama disappeared while swimming from a Hawaiian Beach? Janet Jackson’s 2004 wardrobe malfunction would pale by comparison.
It was lightly raining when we parked our bus but the need for exercise overcame our aversion to precipitation. It was a pretty hike along the road that had been used to service the fort a century ago. The surface of the trail was mixed soft sand and gravel and we were examining the various animal tracks when a red fox ran out of the bush ahead of us. He / She turned and stared at us, walked on a little and waited for us and then disappeared back into the bush. Really cool. We checked out the beach where Holt disappeared but didn’t spot the body.
There was the remains of a fence that separated the quarantine area from the rest of Australia and also a monument to the Ticonderoga, a clipper that departed from Liverpool in 1852, bound for Melbourne carrying 795 passengers and 48 crew. When she arrived off Point Nepean 90 days later, 93 passengers were already dead of Typhus and 450 were ill with the fever. Another 77 died before they were finally cleared into Australia.
Near the quarantine area was a cemetery that was used by the workers and families who serviced the fort, quarantine and telegraph operations. The dates on the old gravestones told a story of the high infant mortality rate of the era, when parents commonly witnessed the death of multiple children. Hard times and humbling when you consider our health care and life expectancy today.
When we left the park, it was a long drive around the perimeter of the bay to a caravan park at Hobson’s Bay, close to the terminal for the Tasmania Ferry. One of the park “on-line” reviews warned that it was a good place to meet homeless people and drug dealers. Well, it was a little seedy and run down but we passed an uneventful night, clutching our machetes, clubs and axes.
January 7, 2015
A slow day today; we wandered around Mornington Village this morning and in the afternoon had an appointment to get our roof air-conditioner serviced. The technician cleaned the coils with compressed air and blew out the clouds of fine red dust that had settled there during our passage through the Outback. We have continued to dispose of surplus gear from the bus and its absence is finally beginning to show. It is truly amazing how stuff accumulates. The added bonus is that we keep finding items that we brought from the United States three months ago and have remained hidden and lost to us since their arrival.
January 6, 2015
Today we drove through Melbourne and down the Mornington Peninsula to a delightful little park near the town of Mornington, across Port Phillip Bay on the opposite side to the town of Geelong. On the way, we drove through the middle of the city of Melbourne, along roads that still use electric trams for public transportation. Melbourne boasts the largest urban tram rail network in the world and it has been in operation since 1885. You would think that a 130 years later, someone would have worked out a better system. The number of commuters served by trams compares very favorably to the number who commute to work daily by bicycle, except of course that bicycles don’t soak up hundreds of millions of dollars capitalization and occupy half the road space. Politicians do like their little trains though.
Once clear of the urban center we found a truck wash and washed our bus for the third time this year. This was lots of fun as the truck wash had raised side platforms so that you could squirt the roof and make a dent in some of the dried on parrot poo we have been hauling around the continent. This would not have been possible with a tram.
January 5, 2015
We continued with our de-cluttering project today. Annette really worked hard sorting and packing and I worked less hard on more tax paperwork. I had a long conversation with a fellow resident of the caravan park who claimed to be part Aborigine, part Maori, part English and part German (you notice how nobody claims to be Irish except on 17th. March?). From his features, he might have had relatives who were aboriginal but Tasmania isn’t exactly famous for its aboriginal communities and I struggled to keep up with his genealogy.
The park here is too crowded and too noisy, we will be glad to be gone.
January 4, 2015
The highway east from Port Fairy passes through several small towns that have trees planted in an “Avenue of Honor”. These are Cypress trees, planted over 80 years ago as a memorial to Australia’s dead in both World Wars. They are immense and look much older than a mere century. The roads through Victoria are generally treed on both sides of the highway and the internet reports that a third of all highway deaths can be attributed to collisions with arboreal objects. We passed farms that had extensive dry stone walls outlining the meadows and remembered that these were built by returning soldiers from the “War to end all wars”, as a sort of “shovel ready” work project. There were pretty and quiet villages we passed through with older buildings dating from 1850’s, very reminiscent of England before the invasion of the Ottoman Empire in the 1960’s.
By now we were back in civilization, the “Outback” a distant memory and with lots more traffic to contend with. We stopped for the night in Geelong at a caravan park just across the Barwon River. Geelong is the second most populous city in Victoria and home to Ford Australia, a fact that is somewhat less noteworthy since Ford announced plans to shut down all Australian manufacturing activity by 2016.
January 3, 2015
Yesterday we had stopped on the highway to dump the contents of our cassette toilet at an approved dump site, when we noticed that the bus front quarter light fixture was hanging by its connecting wires. I grabbed a screwdriver and reinstalled it but of the two nylon fittings, one was missing and the other in bad shape. There were no auto parts stores in Kingston, thus we headed over to Mount Gambier this morning. Five dollars worth of fittings later and we were back in business but with the added security of having two screws holding the bus together instead of just one. We laid our next course in for Port Fairy, so named after a whaler bearing the unlikely name of “The Fairy”, that put in here in 1822. (my next comment made Annette laugh but she made me take it out) As we approached town we saw a board advertising the rodeo for 6:00 p.m. this evening.
We parked at a caravan site and contemplated walking through the local cemetery and climbing the fence into the rodeo grounds but from a distance, the fence looked substantial, so instead we hiked around the block. The rodeo was really great and we sat on makeshift bleachers constructed of hay bales inside a huge trailer. We picked the top row of bales, since most other spots had already been taken, without realizing that these were the best seats in the house, particularly after it began to rain. The rodeo began with motorcycle stunt riding by professional riders of the Australian FMX bike team. “FMX” is freestyle motocross and the riders jump their bikes some 75 feet into the air and perform various tricks while “in flight”. The demonstrations were heart stopping and finished with the lead rider performing a backflip before landing his motorcycle perfectly. I noticed that none of the riders were particularly old. We then watched bull riding, another sport suitable only for young men. They had introduced the bull riders and bronc riders, one by one during the opening ceremony; several were already limping and the rodeo hadn’t even begun. Most of the riders parted company with the bulls, well before the minimum eight second ride and the animals would run around the arena as though seeking a matador to gore. There were two cowboys (we would have called them “rodeo clowns” but Australians call them something like “protection athletes” – go figure) who’s job really was to protect the bull rider and also to get the loose bull into the stall. Very impressive to watch. These men would go right under the bull’s horns to drag a rider to safety and to push the enraged animal away. They wore some kind of body armor and one was tossed into the air by a bull but walked away as though it was part of the act. I don’t think that I have ever been this close to a rodeo before, because in the USA, the stands are set farther back to handle the bigger crowds. The power and anger of the maddened beasts was almost tangible.
Next were the “bronc” riders and in this event, there were two horsemen to rescue the rider and to collect the loose bronco. Bronco riding is another sport for the young and invincible and I was impressed both with the skill, courage and determination of the riders and also with the performance of the two riders providing the safety and stock collection services. They were older cowboys and they seemed to be wearing their horses. The skill with which they caught the bridle of the runaway mustang, reached over and removed the saddle from the plunging animal and then herded it into a stall, all from horseback - truly remarkable.
The last competition we watched was the ladies barrel racing. The youngest rider had the best time, probably because she was not only a skilled rider but the saddle weighed more than she did. There were several ladies who were obviously both talented and experienced but they needed to lose the product of a decade or so of doughnut and french-fry eating in order to be competitive. The rodeo continued late into the evening but we listened from our caravan park on the opposite side of the cemetery. No, we didn’t climb the fence. We are too fat.
January 2, 2015
When we awoke the wind was whipping the trees. We had planned on driving to Hindmarsh Island and checking out the seal colony at the end of some jetty or other but with this wind, we would see nothing but breakers. We instead turned our bus to the east, heading towards Murray Bridge which provides a bridge over the Murray – who would have thought! There were other shorter routes but these involved taking a ferry and the internet was unclear on our status as a 4.5 ton bus. We were not in the mood to experiment and after reaching the town of Murray Bridge we changed our destination to “Kingston S.E.” and drove the coast road.
Kingston is the home of Big Lobster, a 60 foot tall, 4 ton fiberglass rendering of a lobster, located at the north entrance to the town and referred to by the locals as “Larry”, although we don’t know why. The sign on the door of the roadhouse hosting “Larry” read “limited lobster available”. It is noteworthy that “limited” is an aboriginal word meaning “frozen”. We blew off Larry and headed for the caravan park just off the beach. It was time for a beach-walk and although there were beaches on our approach to Kingston, the smell of rotting seaweed was evident, even with the bus A/C set to “recirculate” and we saw no point in stopping. The Kingston beach however was soft sand with just a hint of drying seaweed. Children splashed joyfully in the surf, without knowledge or care of the Great White Sharks. We however are convinced that the Southern Australian waters are teeming with such creatures. We walked the sandy beach about a mile to a prominent jetty and spotted a large seal or sea-lion; I can’t remember how you tell them apart. It lay asleep on a bed of drying seaweed and only moved enough so that you could tell it wasn’t dead. I personally am convinced that wherever you see sea lions, or seals for that matter, their natural predator, the Great White Shark will be nearby – see above, re: kids playing.
At the end of the jetty was a recommended “restaurant”, which was predictably closed but was actually just a seafood store, probably selling frozen Maine lobster in the few minutes it was actually open. We found another restaurant in the small town, “The Old Wool Store” and although it was not slated to open for another 30 minutes, we managed to convince the staff to serve us beer until the kitchen opened. This was a good choice and we enjoyed all three corners of the food pyramid, Barramundi, chips and beer and then followed this with desert.
January 1, 2015
Okay, we didn’t get home until the wee hours so we got up late. Today is a holiday in Australia which means nothing moves. We spent the day organizing “end of year” financials, paying taxes and insurance premiums. What a way to begin the year!
December 31, 2014
New Years Eve and we need fireworks! Last night I had researched Adelaide and the “What’s on in Adelaide” web-site promised crowds of 30,000 plus, in the downtown area. There are no downtown caravan parks, the hotels fully booked and the prospect of fighting 30,000 others for a cab was not appealing. Further down the web-site were listings of celebrations in surrounding towns and I spotted one at the seaside resort of Victor Harbor. What made this option stand out was that there would be a special train “The Cockle Train” from the nearby resort of Goolwa, to and from the fireworks. I called the railway office and made reservations for the “special” and then called the caravan park in Goolwa. Here I reserved the last site available. This plan was coming together!
The Murray River winds behind a barrier island in its estuary before emptying into the southern ocean through a small gap. In the first elbow of the Murray lies the town of Goolwa (means “elbow” in an aboriginal dialect) and around 1837 was considered as a possible site for the State capital. The floods of the Murray and shifting “mouth” made this a “treacherous” location and although Goolwa was Australia’s first inland port, the first railway line was laid from nearby Port Elliot so that ocean going ships could transship their cargos to river boats at Goolwa and avoid the mouth of the Murray. Port Elliot was not a good shelter so the line was further extended to Victor Harbor. Once the railway lines had been laid across Australia’s interior, Goolwa’s importance as a Murray River port was diminished but today this was our destination.
When we arrived in the town, we immediately heard the whistle of a steam train. The line from Goolwa to Victor Harbor has been retained as a tourist attraction and a steam powered train is operated by volunteers. For private tours and when Australian “fire” codes do not permit the operation of a coal fired locomotive, an antique diesel is used.
That evening we walked from the caravan park into town, a whole mile and chatted with new friends John and Jane as we waited for the “fireworks special” train at 8:30 p.m. The ride to Victor Harbor was perhaps 30 minutes and the antique cars rocked along the coast with the rocky shore and breaking waves just 50 yards away. The train terminated in a historical district with a tram museum and a carnival going full blast. Rides for the kids, food stalls, a band playing and surrounding pubs to provide needed respite from the no-alcohol zone. At 9:30 p.m. we were sitting on the beach for a fireworks display for the children. It was well done and Annette and I both felt that it was probably better than the midnight fireworks event for the adults. The New Year arrived with a bang and slightly shell-shocked, we rode the train back to Goolwa, where John and Jane had parked their car and gave us a lift back to the caravan park.
December 30, 2014
This morning when I awoke, the bus interior was chilly. Annette was still asleep so I turned on the bus heater and headed for the loo. The morning peace was shattered by the smoke detector going off and I struggled to extract myself from the head and turn the gosh darned thing off. It has obviously been a while since we ran the heater but by now, all of the accumulated “fuzz” had been burned off the heater elements and furthermore Annette was wide awake.
We headed out into a cool, clear, sunny and low humidity day, the road ahead, arrow straight across tree-less empty plains. We spotted three live emus near the roadside plus a half dozen recently killed kangaroos but nothing else moved. Further south the land was more rolling and the trees reappeared, growing right up the the highway and providing ample hiding spots for large suicidal fauna. Nothing dashed out at us and we left the the native wildlife un-slaughtered and the bus undented as we turned off the Stuart highway to the east.
We stopped at Port Pirie but by now the wind was blowing strongly and promised an uncomfortable night in any beachfront caravan park, thus we continued on to a pleasant little park at Crystal Brook, camping amongst huge eucalyptus trees. A fellow camper told us that we would hear koalas in the trees tonight. This sounded exciting but we reasoned that we should be able to spot any koalas asleep in the trees. We had parked the bus and wandered along the dry riverbed behind the park and through the golf course across the highway. No koalas. Lots of birdlife including Mulga parrots and Red-rumped parrots, moderately rare this far west. Annette spoke with the caravan park manager and he confirmed that there were no koalas in this area. We knew that already!
December 29, 2014
This morning we shopped Coober Pedy for opals. Annette had very specific items in mind and we went from store to store until she finally found what she wanted. During the shopping expedition, we met Peter and Helen from our Alice Springs Christmas luncheon. Helen was looking for an opal ring and I helpfully suggested that opals were too soft a stone for a ring and easily damaged. Diamonds would be a better choice.
In the parking lot of one store was the crashed spacecraft from the movie “Pitch Black” released in 2000. The spacecraft had landed on an unexplored planet and one of the survivors, a prison convict played by Vin Diesel, manages to save everyone. I haven’t seen the movie and its reviews suck, so I’m not likely to, either. The movie take outs show the standard “scowling, prison-inmate, thug” character and I can see that for free, just about anywhere in the USA, I don’t need to pay for the privilege.
We left around noon and drove south towards Woomera. The land a flat and treeless desert, gentle slopes and then dried lake beds forming salt pans. The landscape is never boring in that what is treeless sand switches to dense bushes and then grass with scattered shade trees. We cannot see the reason for the abrupt change in landscape. The soil looks pretty much the same. Bushfires? Grazing? Fault line changes in the water table? There was virtually no road kill and no “live” sightings until we approached the Woomera turnoff when we spotted a couple of emus, grazing along the roadside.
We stopped at Woomera caravan park for the night and walked through the town to eat dinner at the hotel. We experienced the same eerie feeling as before as we walked past the deserted homes. A “ghost-town” would have scattered debris, boarded up windows, abandoned and rusting vehicles. Woomera has none of these and the homes are neat and tidy, the streets clean, the sidewalks in good condition. We walked through the town counting the homes with overt signs of life. One house had the exact same laundry on the drying line as when we visited a couple of months ago although Annette disputes this assertion. Perhaps one in eight homes are occupied but there are also many home sites that have the remains of a concrete driveway and utilities but nothing else. The town theatre windows had no posters advertising coming attractions and on an early week-day evening, the grocery store had an empty parking lot, not even a security truck. However, there was life to be found at the sole hotel and in this oasis of human activity, we found a reasonable meal.
December 28, 2014
We spent the day in Coober Pedy, a town that is usually dead during the tourist “off” season and positively lifeless on a Sunday. We caught up on the laundry, checked our flight status in anticipation of our departure next month and finally got around to painting the exterior mirror brackets on the bus. The next big job (partially completed) was to sort through the contents of the bus, dividing everything into “stays with bus”, “give away” and “returns to Texas” piles. This has been our home for nine months and it is amazing what you can accumulate in that time. Annette discovered a trove of wild bird seed so the caravan park pigeons were fed that afternoon. She still retained enough bird seed and cat food to take us through our trip to Tasmania, so not to worry.
December 27, 2014
Last evening, another bus had pulled into the caravan park and this morning I walked over to talk to J.C. He was returning to Melbourne from a motorcycle rally to memorialize a fellow rider who had ridden his Harley Davidson at nighttime into a camel. The road-trains we see are often heavily armored with massive bars protecting the truck body and some even have heavy metal screens behind the windshield, inside the cab at the driver’s face level. Many areas of Outback Australia are simply hazardous to drive at night.
We headed south again with Annette continuing to gibber on about more Gibber stones. Have you any idea how many stones there are in Australia? Anyway, she wanted more so I pulled to the side of the road and parked the bus at a random, empty spot of highway some 90 kms north of Coober Pedy. Annette wandered around on the “Gibber Field”, looking for the perfect stone and I yelled at her to leave the brown wiggly things alone. I then noticed that on the opposite side of the highway and set back slightly from the road, was a post bearing a sign and attached to this some fading flowers. It didn’t quite look like other roadside memorials of traffic accidents thus I wandered over to check it out. The sign had raised welded letters on a heavy steel plate and the letters had been painted in black paint to raise their contrast. The sign stated that upon this spot, Ron Marks had been murdered on 16-9-93.
I had to search this later on the internet but Ron Marks was a 42 year old man, driving northbound to Alice Springs. Unfortunately for Ron there was Dale Harris a 23 year old man, also driving northbound, who fell asleep at the wheel and wrecked his car. He and his girlfriend were not badly injured and the girlfriend got a lift back to Coober Pedy, leaving Harris beside his wrecked vehicle smoking marijuana. Several hours went by but when “Good Samaritan” Ron Marks stopped by to help and to offer water and some oranges, for his efforts he was stabbed to death by Harris, who then hid the body in a culvert, stole the dead man’s clothes and car and drove to Coober Pedy, still covered in blood. What actually happened will never be known because Harris told multiple rambling lies and on appeal, he was acquitted of murder and convicted only of manslaughter. He should have been released from prison around 2003 but the internet does not provide this detail.
I wandered back to where Annette was still picking up stones and pointed out to her an unusual stone shaped like a spear point. She was so happy with this discovery and notes that it has been knapped on both edges to sharpen it. The aborigines supposedly favored spears rather than bows and arrows, as the Australian game animals were larger and with thicker, more arrow resistant skins than their neighbors to the north.
The road to our south continued as desert with gently rolling slopes until in the distance we saw a line of pale colored dunes. As we crested the rise we saw that these were not dunes but tailings from the opal fields on the north side of Coober Pedy. For the next twenty miles, the earth was torn up just about all the way into town. Here on the north side, we found the town water company where you can not only buy volume drinking water but in strange proximity, empty your cassette toilet with a payment of 20 cents to use the rinse water!
That evening we ate a very nice meal at Umberto’s restaurant at the Desert Cave Hotel. No M.A.S.H. reruns to entertain us but the meal did not disappoint.
December 26, 2014
We abandoned Alice Springs today and as we blearily looked out of the bus window, it was overcast but not raining and the kids next door were still playing with the toy guns that Annette had given them for Christmas.
Our drive lay south and despite the rain, the land looked dry and flat all the way until the border with South Australia. No wildlife to be seen and no road-kill. We stopped at the dry bed of the Finke River and read a fading sign for tourists that claimed that the Finke is one of the oldest rivers on planet earth, a fact that Wikipedia disputes. What is more factual is that it meanders from the MacDonnell Ranges in the northwest, across the flat plains of the Simpson Desert we were currently crossing and rarely contains water. When it does get water, the water either evaporates or soaks into the ground to recharge the aquifer of the “Great Artesian Basin”. Beyond the border crossing, we had low hills and gently rolling slopes. We crossed into South Australia and stopped on the side of the highway so that Annette could search for “Gibber Stones”, the name “Gibber” deriving from an aboriginal language and meaning “stone”. These “stones” form a “desert pavement” - that is they are found packed tightly together on plains, particularly on alluvial fans. The surface of the stones often looks varnished and these are the stones Annette sought. The darkest stones were almost black, and obviously have a heavy iron content since they are attracted by a magnet.
It was late afternoon when we stopped for the night at the Marla Roadhouse. The caravan park was deserted when we pulled in and the roadhouse seems to derive its business from a nearby aboriginal community. We ordered beer, chicken fried steaks and watched an episode of M.A.S.H. on the bar television. The beer was OK.
December 20 through December 25, 2014
‘Twas the week before Christmas and we planned to spend it in Alice Springs. We have been preparing for our “final” month of visiting Australia and this means getting the bus ready to sell. I washed the dead bugs and mud from one half of the bus on Saturday and then ran out of energy. The other half of the bus got washed on Sunday morning and since Outback Australia is pretty much dead on a week-end, for the balance of the day, we just lazed around reading books and watching movies.
Monday was “work” day and we tore into action. We had the “couch” seat cushion repaired by having its “deep button” sewn back on – this is easy if you own a needle that is 10 inches long – and we finished up a couple of minor cosmetic repairs to the bus before treating ourselves to lunch at McDonalds. The “Quarter-pounder with cheese” tasted pretty much like a USA version of the famed “Quarter-pounder with cheese” and represents the first McDonalds product we have eaten in OZ since 2013. (We have to re-enter American cuisine gradually, so as to avoid calorie shock) The McDonalds in question was in “downtown” Alice Springs and although the establishment itself is easy to find, parking is not. We have parked in all sorts of spaces sized for automobiles and usually the bus “overhangs” by a couple of feet into the adjacent space. Although we could always drive further out to find less regulated parking, we are hauling cases of beer and drinking water and the Alice Springs shopping carts have automatic locking wheels if you try to take them down the block. We tested this and the system really works – the Cole’s grocery store employee was not as fascinated as we were however. Fortunately the bus was parked on the opposite side of the road and within easy schlepping and jay-walking range.
Monday afternoon was spent in its entirety at a tire specialist getting the front wheels spin-balanced and a front end alignment. We had tried several times in the past to get this done and on each occasion we were told, “Yes we do that but buses are worked on at our xxxx facility” – generally in the next time zone. The wife of the tire company proprietor had a 13 (?) year old visiting for the holiday and he and Annette entertained each other by sharing their favorite U-Tube videos of exploding fruit targets that were the victim of either explosives or ultra-high powered rifles. He was a cute grandson substitute and might have been surprised at our politically incorrect enthusiasm for blowing things up (We are after all, Americans and Mythbusters is going into its 13th season).
The following morning we were back at the upholstery shop and the driver’s seat was expertly repaired. It had simply being showing the signs of its 17 years age with small cracks and tears in the sidewalls of the seat cushion. We were on a roll now and I was inspired to wire brush the exterior mirror brackets and paint them with phosphoric acid to kill any rust stains they were developing. I planned to repaint them with black paint on the morrow!
It rained all night and all of the next day, Christmas Eve. No painting today! We had plenty of books to read and movies to watch and our shopping had been completed. Parked next to us was a family with three children, two boys 5 and 9 years old and a girl of 9 months. Annette donated her strings of battery operated Christmas lights to what she considered a greater cause. She then emptied her stash of kid’s toys, pipe cleaners, water balloons, magnifying glasses, stickers, plus battery operated “Rudolph” flashing noses. She also gave them a potato gun and a fly-swatter gun. The parents are Danish / Australian and have an eco-home / earth / tree business (couldn’t find their web-site) so she asked for permission before she armed their male offspring.
Christmas morning arrived and we awoke to see the three happy children, sitting with their parents on a blanket spread over the still damp grass and opening their presents. This was absolutely delightful and a welcome reminder of one of the true joys of Christmas. One of the other park neighbors had loaned the family a small Christmas tree and the boys had decorated this tree with paper chains. The original Christmas story was of a young family that arrived in town to find that all the hotel space was taken. Of course the government at the time had demanded a census and with typical bureaucratic arrogance, had demanded that everyone return to their place of birth to be counted, without regard to available accommodation. The woman was pregnant and the couple were bailed out of their predicament by the generosity of private enterprise, when they were offered the use of the inn’s stable. They too had to make do and used one of the mangers for a bassinet.
We had been invited to join three other couples for a shared Christmas “lunch” and for me, this was a delightful step back in time as we began our meal by “pulling” Christmas crackers. (For American readers, these are gaudily decorated paper cylinders, like giant candy wrappers, that contain a small explosive device to make it “crack” when pulled and traditionally contained a paper hat, a toy and a slip of paper with a joke or fortune.) We had just finished our main course and were into the Christmas puddings when the “next door” children stopped by to visit. Annette was delighted to see that both boys were still sporting their potato and fly swatter guns she had given them on Christmas Eve.
December 19, 2014
We decided that Alice Springs would likely provide a more lively Christmas than say, Woomera, thus we abandoned Yulara and headed back north to Alice Springs. The drive was pleasant if uneventful and in mid-afternoon, we pulled into the “G’Day Mate” caravan park where we intend to roost for the next week.
Annette had purchased some DVD’s from an obscure roadhouse and one of them was “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for which she paid the princely sum of AU$2 for a “new” version. The movie was such a surprise that I had to “Google” it this morning and it was not easy to find. In today’s PC world, Mark Twain is no longer persona grata because the period he wrote about in ante bellum America, we must pretend never happened. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are no longer read by school children in the USA and in fact there are continuing efforts to ban the novels. I have seen several movie versions of Tom Sawyer but never before seen a movie version of Huckleberry Finn. This rendering is unique in that is the only movie made that covers every episode of the original novel. It was first released in 1986 on PBS’ American Playhouse and ran a boggling 240 minutes. Well acted and well worth the two bucks.
December 18, 2014
Last night was more rain and when we headed over to the Ayers Rock park, streams of water were running down its face. The stark red of the rock had black, water wet streaks, at what appeared to us to be the strangest angles but the water knew better and followed the shortest meridian. Where water had accumulated above, the silver of waterfalls coursed down the walls. Predictably the hike from the base to the “sacred” summit was “closed” and we didn’t even bother to enquire as to why. We parked the bus and hiked the trail around the base, heading into Kantju Gorge. As we approached the base of the rock, we could hear aboriginal music playing, the dirge of the didgeridoo accompanied by the rhythmic clicking of sticks. The music became even louder when we stopped at a ground level cave and in the absence of the musicians, I looked up to the cave roof to find the location of the speakers. There were none. We then realized that the small frogs in the recently made pool were using the rare occurrence of rain to “get it on”. The wall of the cave acted like an acoustic mirror and amplified the sound out of all proportion to the size of its tiny creators. We waited patiently until we located the musicians and found that the frogs were making both sounds, the didgeridoo sound as well as the rhythmic clicking sound. Simply amazing.
We continued our walk around the base of Ayers rock and arrived at a sign that warned us not to take photographs of a “sacred” location. About twenty five yards further on another sign indicating the far boundary of the “no picture” area. Now what exactly was the problem of having some photons impinge on a sliver of germanium? It’s OK to look but not to take a picture!
Ayers rock was “discovered” in 1872 by surveyors for the overland telegraph line. The area is devoid of water, except for the month or so of wet season, when it was possible for aboriginal hunters to visit. Grazing, drought and “conflict” drove the aborigines completely out of the area for the next forty years or so. Around 1936, the first tourists arrived overland but it was not until a well had been drilled around 1970 that it was possible for the aborigines to establish a community here. Since the aborigines had never had a permanent settlement here until 1970, had no written records and depended for their history upon handed down tales and furthermore the continuity of these tales had been disrupted by three or more generations by “conflict”, just who the hell determined that all this stuff was “sacred and taboo”? You just have to think that there is some bureaucratic “Tickle Tree” hugger in Canberra who dreams this bullshit up.
Our next destination was the Kata Tjuta outcrops (Mount Olga), some 25 miles to the west of Uluru (Ayers Rock). The entrance to the access road bore a huge sign warning that the “Valley of the Winds” hike was closed. We ignored this and pressed on finding no such warning at the trailhead itself. The Kata Tjuta outcrops are not as monolithic as Uluru, yet are the same geologic formation. The rock is brick red in color, weathered into fantastic curves and arches and unlike Uluru, has vegetation growing in the long cracks. We hiked along the western face of the outcrops until a trail headed into a canyon between the rocks. Here was a large sign with green LED’s indicating that the trail was open. This “Valley of the Winds” was windless but the previous night’s rain had cooled everything down. On the east side of the valley, the trail “Tee’d” into a loop hike and we chose the southern route that led into a series of deep canyons before emerging at a high overlook with central Australia stretching out at our feet. The sky blue with fair weather cirrus decorating the view. At times like this we feel so privileged and humbled. What a beautiful country.
December 17, 2014
It was 4:00 a.m. when the alarm went off and I burrowed deeper under the covers. We were supposed to bound out of bed at this time to make it over to Ayers Rock for sunrise and to see if the trail from the base to summit was open for tourists. Annette looked out of the window, opened the door and stepped out of the bus. It had rained heavily overnight and was still sprinkling, the skies grey, overcast and forbidding. She went back to the bed that I had never left.
Later that morning, we rode the shuttle bus over to the main resort complex to attend a workshop on spear and boomerang throwing. The spear throwers all sucked and any kangaroo further away than about six feet would have been perfectly safe. The boomerangs were better and whizzed around the sky, getting stuck in trees and making everyone duck or scramble for cover. These were plywood “training” boomerangs but it was easy to see how a “real” boomerang would be lethal if you could actually hit what you aimed at - without Hollywood’s assistance of course.
We next attended a talk on aboriginal hunting weapons and this speaker really seemed to know his subject. He showed us a hunting spear, spear thrower or “Woomera”, talked about their manufacture and then showed us hunting boomerangs. He peppered his talk with descriptions of where to strike a kangaroo or emu with a spear and in graphic detail, how the disabled animal was tracked and dispatched. There was only one other couple listening to his talk and the lady looked like she was a founding member of PETA and about to faint. This only got better when he explained how the boomerang was used as a club to break the neck of a wounded kangaroo or hurled at emus to disable them by breaking the legs. The couple got up and left.
The boomerangs he showed us were “non-returning” working boomerangs, as were most of these weapons. When Annette asked him if he had ever hunted with a spear, he admitted that he did hunt but only with a gun. He said that he was allowed to use a boomerang when he was a child, presumably because in most societies, a kid with a throwing stick is considered safer than a kid with a gun.
There was another workshop on didgeridoo playing but we were warned that the aboriginals had a taboo on women playing the instrument (another example of their egalitarian society). The reason given was that the pitch of the instrument would harm the reproductive organs of a woman. Annette said that at 63 years old, she was willing to take the chance but no dice, just the guys. I can make a farting noise with a didgeridoo but the real players in our family are Annette, daughter Marian and son Matthew, who are all didgeridoo talented. We moved on.
In late afternoon we watched a play at the Mani-Mani cultural theatre. The play lasted about an hour, performed by two “actors” with video and soundtrack accompaniment. Its redeeming factor was that it was performed in an air-conditioned building. The theme of the play was a creation story and perhaps makes as much sense as other creation stories, involving apples and snakes for example and is described in the literature as a “tale of love, jealousy and greed”. Just about describes any TV soap opera.
December 16, 2014
We left Kings Creek station and headed for Uluru, or rather the nearby resort complex of Yulara. The road was empty of road-kill and empty also of animals such as horses, cattle or camels. When we arrived at the caravan park it was already hot, well into the 100’s F. The park was near empty and we stood in the shade at the park entrance for a large, air-conditioned shuttle bus, to whisk us over to the main resort complex. We had been handed a flyer offering free daily activities and one of these was “cultural dancers” in the main “town square” (actually a grassy area sandwiched between resort hotels, restaurants, galleries and the like). I didn’t really believe that the dancers would perform at the current temperatures but indeed they did. There were five “aboriginal” dancers, their faces and bodies painted with white stripes and one of the five dancers looked aboriginal. A second dancer might have been aboriginal and the other three looked very definitely Caucasian. Nevertheless, they sang, chanted and danced with gusto, in fact it was one of the better “traditional” dances I have ever seen.
We ate supper at a hotel expecting to get a call that the “Sunset camel ride” we had booked had been cancelled. The overt reason were the multiple pods of rain coupled with lightning strikes that were visible all around us. The shuttle bus picked us up as scheduled and we were driven to a nearby camel farm where we mounted our steeds. This is a one hour tour that winds up, around and over some sand hills, providing spectacular sunset views of Ayers Rock. We left everything that we owned, that might be damaged by rain, at camel headquarters and headed out expecting to be soaked. The camel ride was just as much fun as we remembered from our previous visit, 8 years ago, the camels providing a sure footed, swaying motion as they ambled along. The rock glowed in the setting sun surrounded by dramatic storm clouds. When the first flash of lightning occurred, I began to count seconds until the peal of thunder. Five miles away; OK, not to worry. The next flash was two miles away and the guides began to look worried. The head guide warned his colleagues to prepare to get the camels to sit and have us dismount and sit on the sand next to the camels. I was even more aware of how high you sit on the back of a camel, your head around ten feet above the ground. The head guide ordered “no stopping” on the highest crest to take sunset pictures and as he spoke the next flash calculated out as four miles. Better. As we headed back to the farm, our guide kept up a long rambling dissertation of the racing camel, “Lazy Daisy”, about the punters who had made fortunes betting on her and how her talents were discovered. His breezy efforts to distract and reassure the tourists only made things worse for a couple of sailors who are perhaps more aware of lightning danger. It was with great relief that we arrived back at the yard and although many stood around taking pictures of the camels, I did my watching from under the eaves of a tin shed. Definitely an exciting and memorable ride.
Later that evening we encountered a group of fellow travellers who were bemoaning the wait for the shuttle bus, advertised at 15 minutes. I stated that this was only in the “dry season” ( it was still raining). The gentleman I was speaking to laughed and translated what I had said before turning back to me and asking, “Do you know what language I am speaking?”. I answered “Hebrew” and he responded, “How can you know that? I speak it with a Spanish accent!” We explained that we had visited Israel and of course the people we were visiting with were from Northern Israel. They were a lively group to talk to and we wish we could have continued the conversation, which was interrupted of course by the arrival of the bus.
December 15, 2014
Kings Canyon lies about 25 miles from our caravan park and it was just before 9:00 a.m. and already hot when we arrived at the park. The canyon is treed and shady along the creek side and we could see ahead of us, a group of hikers toiling up to the summit of the escarpment for a ridge-line walk. There were a couple of rangers who told us that we too could enjoy this exercise, as they were just about to “close the hike” due to the heat. We demurred and instead walked the creek bed into the canyon and found a quiet pool of water amongst the boulders at the head of the canyon. We spent a pleasant hour sitting on the cool rocks and watching the tadpoles and water scorpions (Laccotrephes spp.) play. There were frogs clinging to the shadow side of boulders and a series of birds came to the waterhole to drink in the shade of the Eucalypts. It was hard to tear ourselves away but the day was warming and we headed over to the Kings Canyon Resort for a very forgettable lunch.
Back at the Kings Creek roadhouse we were told that there were a Baker’s dozen of camels in the “long paddock”. We walked the trail along the fence line, paralleling the highway and although we could see Brumbies on the opposite side of the highway, no camels! We walked on soft red sand, trying to find the firmer sections and analyzing the tracks we saw. One set of tracks was confidently determined to be beetle made, our confidence due to the beetle we could see making them but others looked to be mouse sized. At one point Annette poked at a worm looking thing with her toe, whilst I raved about Death Adders. Of course it couldn’t be a Death Adder because these bury themselves in the dust, right? Fortunately the “worm” turned out to be not the tail of one of the most venomous snakes in Australia but some kind of cloth covered, elastic hair band.
About an hour before sunset as the evening was cooling, we walked to a lookout on a ridge top where the station has their water reservoir. The scenery magnificent, the bush empty and devoid of life in all directions. Minutes after sunset, we heard the whinnying of wild horses and the lowing of cattle and from nowhere, they converged on the stock tank waterhole below us. The sunset painted the escarpment across the highway in flaming reds, the flies that had been plaguing us went home and we could remove the nets protecting our face and the temperature began to drop noticeably. It was near dark when we finally left the lookout and walked downhill to the caravan park down a track of soft sand. Annette froze at one point and turned on her flashlight to illuminate a brown snake, perhaps three feet away and heading downhill in our direction. Yes, it was just like the one we saw at the desert park in Alice, responsible for more snake bite deaths in Australia than any other specie. We took its picture.
December 14, 2014
We headed out this morning for King’s Canyon, southbound on the Stuart Highway. There are short routes but all involve driving on gravel / dirt roads and when we had enquired at the information center, were told that a 4 wheel drive truck became a rescue candidate after the heavy rains the area has experienced. This is not for us. We took the long route and made our first stop at Stuart Well Roadhouse. We didn’t need fuel but Annette wanted to enquire about camels. She emerged from the roadhouse with the news that they had a baby “Roo” in a pillowcase and that there was a camel farm next door. There was indeed a baby “Roo” in a pillowcase and Annette was allowed to hold and cuddle it whilst I took pictures. Its mother had been shot by Aborigines and for some reason, they dropped the Joey off at the roadhouse where the proprietors had been caring for the animal for the past two weeks. It wears a diaper when hopping around their house and Annette could barely bring herself to give it up.
She was temporarily distracted by the camels next door and we watched the camel wrangler carry his coffee across the parking lot and then jump over the fence. We went around the long way with the bus and Annette got to ride a camel around the paddock. We arrived perhaps a minute before another Toyota Coaster disgorged a full load of tourists on an “Outback Adventure”. While Annette was on her way to Akaba, I chatted with four of the new arrivals and found they were from Scotland, Japan, Austria and the Philippines. What an international mix!
We continued south to the Eridunda Roadhouse and then left the Stuart Highway, heading west to the “Red Center of Australia”. There were hills and escarpments, scattered vegetation and then an Acacia forest with broad spaces between the trees. A natural occurrence due to brush fires or artificially planted that way? At 60 mph. we never decided. Next the forest was gone and multiple dust devils were on the horizon. Off to our flank in the bush we saw six “brumbies” (wild horses) and a foal but nothing else, no road-kill kangaroos, emus or camels.
We arrived at an empty caravan park and cooled ourselves off in the water of the Kings Creek Station swimming pool. The water felt ice-cold but this was probably exaggerated by the current air temperature of 113 degrees F (45 C). We looked forwards to a quiet night when three more Toyota Coaster loads of “Adventure” campers pulled into the park and took over the pool and shower block. How dare they!
December 13, 2014
This morning we headed over to the Alice Springs Desert Park. This is a sprawling park on the outskirts of town and specializes in displays of local fauna and Aboriginal culture. We began with a talk by an aboriginal park ranger on kangaroos in a paddock where a dozen or so red kangaroos were lazing about in the heat. He was partway through his talk when a couple of children ran up and began to poke the kangaroos. The latter immediately moved away, except for one animal that ran into a wire fence and began to thrash. The children did not recognize the danger that they were in and ignored instructions to move back, even as the ranger attempted to usher the terrified animal to safety. The talk pretty much ended at that point and I took the opportunity to quiz the man on aboriginal hunting techniques. He confirmed my surmise that historically, kangaroos were difficult for the native people to successfully hunt and were generally taken by ambush at a watering hole when they came to drink after sunset. The modern hunting technique is to take them with a head shot using a “22 Magnum” caliber rifle.
The next exhibit was a lady talking about “bush tucker” and desert survival. I was interested that the base of the food gathered by the women was in the form of wild grass seeds that were milled using a suitably shaped grinding stone and that the resulting “flour” was made into loaves to be baked in the fire. This seems to be true of most hunter gatherer societies. The balance of the food was opportunistically gathered in the form of whatever was seasonal or could be found i.e bugs, lizards, roots, berries and the like. Her description of traditional social activities was straight out of “Clan of the Cave Bear” by Jean Auel. Now did our speaker get her spiel from the book, or is the book based upon Australian aboriginal culture? We had learned that when a culture is destroyed, as happened at Easter Island (Rapa Nui), the popular media version of history is substituted and becomes the “lost” culture. She began by explaining that in traditional aboriginal society, men and women are exactly equal – a feminists “dream”. Also there is no social hierarchy, no “pecking order”. She next stated that the senior men make all of the important decisions, determine who needs to be punished and then direct the appropriate punishment to be carried out by the younger men. Sounds equal to me.
Our speaker showed us a map of Aboriginal languages and explained that most tribes were unable to communicate with the adjacent tribe. A hunting area might contain four or five extended families, each with one to three dozen members. The less available food density in an area, the larger the necessary hunting range. She was asked how the hunters knew the boundaries of their domain and she explained that it was the older females job to teach the young by the repetitious sand drawing of maps showing the water holes that could be used by their family and any landmarks. We had seen traditional sand drawings in the remote Cook Islands and elsewhere had been told that the beginnings of commercial aboriginal art was when these traditional sand diagrams were transferred to bark or canvas using the colored ochers and dot patterns of the traditional body paintings.
Her claims to pre-contact longevity (80 to 90 years) was obviously nonsense and many hunter gatherer societies around the globe had a reported life expectancy of around 30 years. Wikipedia notes that the average life expectancy for a male, born in the UK between 1276 and 1300 (when there was both a census and written records made) was 31.3 years.
We next visited the nocturnal animals exhibit which had the advantage of being climate controlled. Most native Australian animals are either nocturnal or crepuscular, the only major exception and motoring hazard I can think of being the Emu. This was a great exhibit with a variety of rare marsupials and reptiles. We saw a brown snake and were surprised to see that it was not particularly large and not particularly brown, yet responsible for the majority of Australian snakebite deaths. (The relevance of this observation came to us two days later – watch this space!).
December 12, 2014
We drove into town this morning for a few items at the hardware store and then headed over to the downtown information center. There was no easy parking for a bus and the signs leading us to caravan parking, terminated at a set of barriers blocking off the empty parking lot. We finally found an abandoned building site and parked in the dirt. The main shopping area was a hive of activity with the town preparing for the lighting of the Christmas Tree festivities.
We decided that a grocery store in the suburbs would be easier for us for schlepping quantities of drinking water and beer, since downtown groceries generally have multi-story car-parks that are not bus friendly. We had already learned that beer could only be purchased after 2:00 p.m. and while Annette was wandering the grocery aisles, I was buying the booze. When I asked for Port, I was told that it could only be purchased after 6:00 p.m., one bottle per customer and your driver’s license must be “scanned” to prevent multiple purchases.
We attempted to return to our caravan park only to discover the highway exit blocked by a half dozen police cars making an “alcohol” stop. To my left, a policewoman waved at me to pull off the highway to be breath tested, to my right, another policeman waved at me to continue straight, bypassing the barrier. I tried my best to look confused (not difficult in my case) and drove straight on. We passed a dozen or so parked cars, with a score of unhappy people sitting next to them in the process of being arrested or waiting for rides home. It was but 3:00 p.m. and the bars have only been open for an hour.
Even before we had witnessed the aggressive anti-alcohol campaign, we had decided to ride a taxi to downtown. Here were hundreds of people milling. Stalls had been set up selling crafts, food and drinks and many of the local stores were still open. The police had barricaded off the shopping areas to automobiles and several bands competed with Christmas music. There were buskers, lots of pretty girls in Santa’s Elves costumes, children getting face paintings or lining up for a huge inflatable slide. Our favorite band had two drummers and a man playing a didgeridoo. He had the output end of his instrument inches from a microphone, while he lovingly caressed the input end and played the most exciting music. An aboriginal man from the crowd began a sort of mixed style dance in the open area before the stage and the crowd applauded both efforts.
At 7:00 p.m., the mayor of Alice Springs presented prizes for the best decorated store window and also the best homemade Christmas ornament. The latter competition was for the children and the winning child got to push the button that lit the Christmas tree in front of the courthouse. This action also signaled the beginning of a fireworks display, probably launched from the dry Todd river bed behind the court house. Altogether a very well organized and fun event.
December 11, 2014
A “Slow day” spent catching up on bills and chores. It is still hot here in the heart of Australia but the humidity is noticeably less than Katherine and Tennant Creek. Annette had picked up a DVD titled: Grey Nomad 103, Caravanning “The Wet”. The video ran for two hours and was produced by Sid Whiting. He had a score of segments, some selling or demonstrating a particular piece of equipment, some reviewing museums or gift galleries and some segments with recommendations and hints on driving safety. Sid discovered that many of the side trips to the swimming holes he had intended to visit were closed off during this season (usually because of crocodile hazards) and many tourist businesses were simply closed. He also discovered that it is hot, humid and wet during the “Wet”. Sid even had a segment of him in his skivvies, refueling a Honda generator at 3:00 a.m. so he could resume his “bush camping” with air-conditioning. We did agree with Sid that the scenery and colors are magnificent and augmented by the absence of crowds but his summary of the trip was classic; basically that he and his partner would likely never again caravan in “The Wet”.
December 10, 2014
We rose early to go fossicking and today we are on a quest for garnets. For the jewelry challenged (like me) these are semi-precious, red gemstones, looking like shards of broken red glass. We loaded our bus with pick axe and shovel, 5 gallons of water, a washing tub, four sieves, a dirt bucket, plus the all important rusty tin can for our garnets. Next was a 19 mile dash along the single lane blacktop to the east, following our “guide” in his ute, with us driving our bus. The last mile or so was on dirt and we did not even attempt to stay up with our lead vehicle, since we expected to be able to tell by his dust cloud if he turned off the track. In fact he waited for us at the turn off (probably because we hadn’t actually paid him yet) and we followed him yet deeper into the bush. After a couple of hundred yards or so, we were in an area that perhaps looked like the Somme in 1916, with mounds of dirt and shallow trenches everywhere. This was the garnet field and we were next shown how to find them. The first stage was to use the pick axe to dig the dirt, as the garnets are found in the top two feet of soil. Then the dirt was broken up and shoveled into a bucket before being poured into a “dry” sieve, the latter shaken and the loose dirt dropped through leaving behind small stones. The more obvious limestone pebbles were discarded and the contents of the “dry” sieve poured into the “wet” sieve. The washing tub had been filled with water to a depth of eight inches or so and the “wet” sieve, submerged, shaken and the like, to remove the balance of the soil. Next the sieve was held above the head, dripping with muddy water and by looking through the stones from below, the sunlight was used to identify red color. Hopefully the sieve might contain a garnet to be plucked out, dropped into the rusted can (the rust is required as a badge of mining authenticity) and the process repeated. Of course we have been known to rehydrate with beer instead of water and during a necessary break period, I noticed that that the recent rains had left garnet fragments on the surface, washed clean of dirt and already gleaming in the sunlight. Thus we decided to forgo some of the more labor intensive steps of traditional gem mining and simply walked around picking them up off the ground. In fact I found a nice sized garnet lying about a foot from the front wheel of the parked bus. Overall this was a fun endeavor and we finished up with several tablespoons volume of raw garnets including five stones judged to be large enough to produce cut gems of up to 4.5 mm size – about one third of a carat weight.
It was becoming hotter when we returned our equipment to the caravan park and chatted to the current owners who are both school teachers. Their own children have been home schooled using “School of the Air”. At one time this would have been by short wave, two way radio but of course today this is via satellite internet, with personalized web-cam tutoring. Only the early grades are taught this way and we were told that by age eleven, all families living at the remote stations send their children away to boarding school. We discussed teaching salaries and discovered that the Northern Territories pay teachers near double what teachers currently make in Texas and this amount triples if the teachers choose to teach in the aboriginal communities. I had commented on the absence of any school bus “stop” signs near these communities and was told that the Australian government provides two teachers to each aboriginal community. In addition to the pay bonus, the teachers are usually provided free housing within the community.
We bade farewell to Gemtree and headed back down the road to the Stuart highway. Again we were brought to a standstill by cattle on the road and have proven by the “honking horn” experiment, that cattle are in fact dumber than birds. We also stopped to examine strange features by the roadside that appeared to be grass circles, perhaps a foot in diameter and four inches high. We saw that these were ant nests and the ants were bringing sections of Spinifex and Acacia leaves to the surface, as though they were drying them. We later learned that these are Acacia ants and the ants produce these distinctive nests with their entrance raised four inches above ground level, as protection against local surface flooding.
We again passed the Tropic of Capricorn just outside Alice Springs and although we searched the bush on either side of the highway, saw no camels. How are the three wise men going to make it into town?
December 9, 2014
We itch! We both have multiple swollen insect bites and we have diagnosed these as “White tailed spider” bites. We haven’t done the convulsions and death yet, thus were able to eliminate a couple of the other Australian species of arachnids. Annette has sprayed the inside of the bus liberally, just in case we picked up any hitchhikers but we haven’t actually seen any bugs on our bus, other than a couple of flies that were too dumb to leave when they had the opportunity and thereafter suffered the consequences.
We left Tennant Creek and headed south on the Stuart Highway. The termite mounds are sharp and pointed, like stalagmites, clustered closely and carpet the ground to the horizon, their near brick red color contrasting sharply with the bright green of the freshly watered bush. For the first time we saw a line of electric utility poles, paralleling the highway. The power poles are steel, as are the fence posts, a precaution against ants and the frequent bush fires and their metal presence reminds us that this highway parallels the railway line connecting Adelaide and Darwin.
We detoured to visit the astonishing granite outcrop called the Devil’s Marbles or “Karlu Karlu” in the Aboriginal dialect (meaning something like “round things” - at least according to the sign at the park. Not super definitive but then again, maybe there has been a shortage of “round things” in the bush). The outcrop is a granite dome that has been weathered along natural fractures and has produced what appears to be rounded boulders, in some cases precariously balanced on top of each other. We visited this park in 2006 and used a photograph as the background for the web-site. (BTW, the secret to looking eight years younger is to use a photograph of yourself from eight years ago). During our 2006 visit, the park was crawling with tourists and the photographers lined up for their opportunity for the staged picture. On this visit, we had the entire park to ourselves. We walked a trail between the boulders and were again amazed by the bizarre formations. Some huge boulders were split in half, as cleanly as if they were gemstones and yet there was no evidence, such as shattered fragments, to suggest that they had fallen.
Back on the highway our next stop was at Wycliffe Well but the UFO museum was closed “for the season”, presumably flying saucers aren’t particularly waterproof. We blew out of there noting that there are now speed zone signs with an additional warning to “watch out for people”. Kangaroos and stray cattle seemingly insufficient hazards. We checked the roadsides for human road-kill but little evidence, well actually none, that this is a common problem.
At the Ti-Tree roadhouse, we paid a record $2.15 per liter for diesel (AU$8.17 per gallon) and I would have demurred but we plan a long detour for gemstone fossicking. Outside the roadhouse were aboriginal people, sitting in the shade of the roadhouse porch in a long line. When I went inside to pay for my fuel, a half dozen men followed me inside. The lady at the cash register brusquely ordered them back outside, stating firmly, “It is not two o’clock yet. The bar is closed!” The clock she pointed to showed a time of 1:52 pm.
The clouds above had been building throughout the afternoon and presented dark bellies, tinged in pink. Some 50 miles short of Alice Springs, we turned eastwards on the “Plenty Highway”, highway being a loose term for the single lane blacktop that stretched out before us. In the distance we could see a large cumulus cloud dumping heavy rain and we tried to estimate its distance and direction of travel. This is difficult when you are rocking along at 60 mph yourself. There was no road-kill on this highway, just cattle scattered about in the bush, sometimes huddled under a tiny tree for shade. We crossed two riverbeds and although there was evidence of recent water, with sediment and dead branches across the road, the riverbeds were still dry. It was not until we were within a mile or two of our destination that the road itself was wet. We pulled into the Gemtree caravan park to find ourselves as the only campers and made arrangements for a fossicking trip on the morrow.
December 8, 2014
We experienced some heavy weather last night with lots of rain, lightning and the power went out several times. Actually there was no “we” involved, I slept through all of the excitement and Annette told me about it this morning. We then spent the morning chatting with park manager about the economics and difficulties of running a caravan park. You can take a college course on “caravan park management” but his tales of dealing with the cheats, deadbeats, drug dealers and crazies would be enough to put anyone off. You really need someone like Luca Brasi to help out (the one who now “sleeps with the fishes”, not the band from Tasmania).
John Stuart named the small creek north of Tennant Creek in 1860 and 12 years later, a stone built telegraph repeater station was located beside this water source. This would have been a popular posting, about as far away from civilization that you could get. A really lonely place until the 1930’s when Australia’s last gold rush occurred nearby. Gold was first discovered in 1926 but the real action began after the third strike in 1932 during the Great Depression. Today’s town was located 7 1/2 miles from Tennant Creek, either because the government had granted the telegraph station a 7 mile reserve, or because in 1934, the pub was located here. Regardless of which version you prefer, water had to be carted from the creek for the miners and their families. We visited the Battery Hill museum, site of the government run 10 head ore stamping mill that ceased operation in 2005. This was a rock crushing plant that crushed the gold bearing ore from various mines. The mine buildings have been converted to displays and one building had a great collection of photographs from 1930’s showing hardships of frontier life. In 1932 there were 600 miners here including 60 women and children. Sickness was rampant from drinking sewage contaminated water and finally the government was called upon to provide a well for bore water for the town. For me this is a little strange that the Australian government was called upon to provide water for mining operations and indeed the gold extraction machinery was also government operated until just 9 years ago. I am used to regarding our government as a form of organized crime, rather than providing any kind of social or economic benefit. An occupational hazard of working in the oil business I suppose.
We next drove up to “Bill Allen” lookout with great views over the Barkly Region, today mostly cattle grazing. The lookout is on top of a knoll just east of town that supports the town water supply storage tank and Bill Allen was a local government worker who supervised utility and road construction in the area. See, there again, in the USA we would have named the hill for some scumbag politician or other, rather than someone who actually did something.
December 7, 2014
While we enjoyed a quiet night at our campsite, three large trucks had pulled in behind our bus. Two were carrying M1-Abrams battle tanks and the third a tracked tank recovery / service vehicle. The M1-Abrams is the main battle tank of both the American and Australian armies and would likely be considered a formidable weapon, if it hadn’t been designed and built by Chrysler. Fortunately for future generations, Chrysler, the worst American auto manufacturer is now owned by Fiat, the worst European auto manufacturer. We walked over to chat with the Australian Marines who were returning with their 70 ton tanks from a training exercise. They left early and we hoped that they had a good start on us, since the 12 foot wide Abrams would constitute a “wide load” and these do not fly down the highway at the customary speed of the ubiquitous Australian “road trains”.
We too headed south in heavy overcast and there was evidence of previous heavy rain on the roadsides. We passed a wallaby on the side of road, which waited patiently until we passed and in the rear view mirror, I watched as it “ran?” across the road behind us. The dawn grazers were still around and we slowed down in anticipation of other animals. A few kilometers later and on our left, a dead “Joey”. On our right, the mother, a full sized “Red” kangaroo sat anxiously waiting for a child that would never “come”. A tragic image that would haunt us all day.
Several flocks of budgerigars hurled themselves at us and I heard at least one hit. We dodged small lizards sitting frozen on the highway but know we must have hit a couple. They just look like wisps of disintegrated rubber tire, until you are on top of them and too late to change course. So we continued on our way, trailing death and mayhem behind us. There were scores of Eagles in the roadway, eating “road kill”. We would blast our horn in warning and they usually respond but are famous for a very slow take off and slow rate of climb. Then they sometimes circle back in front of you, a 12 pound bird at windscreen height. We have observed that many species of birds fly very low in Australia, through the bush and often just a couple of feet off the deck. They fly into the side of the bus, often at the rear. Why is this? We have not seen that many accipiters in Australia and it is not a common habit of birds in the USA. Perhaps time and our vehicles have weeded out all of the low-flyers.
From Newcastle Waters south, the trees began to thin out. We stopped to photograph a pair of Brolga cranes (standing 4 foot high with a 7 foot wingspan) and they continued to graze, totally ignoring us as we yelled in an attempt to get them to smile. By the time we pulled into Tennant Creek, the clouds had cleared and it was hot, the park swimming pool a welcome place to cool off.
December 6, 2014
We had decided that it would be fun to spend a couple of days at Daly Waters and visit the places we first saw nearly two years ago. As we were leaving Mataranka, a weather front passed through but this was all wind and no precipitation. However the approach road to the Daly Waters pub showed signs of recent flooding, with large pools of standing water along the road’s edge. Our intended destination of the Pub caravan park was several inches deep in water. We ate lunch in the pub and Annette was delighted to locate the “Marine Corp” badge that she had donated to their eclectic wall decorations when we visited on 4/11/2013. By now it was heavily overcast and spitting rain and we dodged between the puddles to reach our parked bus. Since Daly Waters was not going to work, we rejoined the main highway and refueled at the roadhouse. Annette checked their caravan park and reported it also soggy. We pressed on down the highway to the next roadhouse at Dunmarra.
From the roadhouse parking lot, we could see the caravan park was obviously on higher ground and we decided that for us, this was it. We pulled onto a site and as we set up our power and water hook-ups, we noticed that the lady next to us was struggling to pack and stow a “camper trailer”. This is an Australian phenomenon, a tent built into and part of a rugged trailer. At first glance they are similar to American “pop-up” campers but there are marked differences. The American version is really a “caravan” with soft, folding walls and hard roof but the Australian version is more likely to have a hard “floor” that unfolds next to the trailer to expand the floor space when the tent is erected. There are all sorts of options for these trailers and you can easily pay $20,000 for a fancy version. A storm had hit this campsite last night and the tent “annex” that had been staked out, was blown by the wind and folded itself on top of the sleeping platform, where our fellow traveller lay. She had been trapped for a couple of hours, trying to hold it all down and passed a miserable night. This area has suffered two nights of severe weather, while Mataranka and Katherine to the north have been untouched. Broken tree limbs lay scattered and I hoped that this meant that all of the loose stuff was already down as we prepared for another night of possibly unsettled weather. There was no cell or internet coverage here and therefore no weather forecast updates.
December 5, 2014
We finally dropped the mooring lines and headed off the dock, bound for destinations south. The park manger, Cray tried to load Annette up with mangoes, harvested from the park trees but there is only so much space on a bus. Besides which, unpeeled mangoes have an odd smell, sort of like an old oil refinery or ancient sewer.
We stopped in at the Cutta Cutta caves, just south of Katherine, where Ethan relieved us of twenty bucks each and then conducted us on a tour of the cave. Ethan explained that the aboriginal use of repeated words indicates multiplicity, therefore since “cutta” means “star” in the local dialect, “cutta cutta” means “stars”. The aborigines thought that the sparkle of calcite crystals on the stalagmites and stalactites within, might have been stars. After all, if bats spent the daylight hours in the caves, perhaps the stars did too. The caves in the area are very ancient, three to four times older than typical limestone caves and the reason, we were told, is because they are not formed formed by the solution of surface water. Instead, they fill from below as the water table rises each year with the “wet season”. In fact the caves become entirely flooded for a few months and then dry out completely as the water table drops again. The flooding action means no insects can survive, thus no frogs looking for insects and no snakes looking for frogs. The caves do host bat colonies and these attract predatory snakes at and near the cave entrance, typically banded tree snakes and pythons.
As we hiked down to cave entrance, we saw a couple of rock wallabies as well as a sleeping banded tree snake just over the entrance. The tour took us on metal walkways a few hundred yards into the cave and we saw magnificent rock formations produced during the few months of the year when the cave has “active” percolation of surface water and before the flooding from below drowns the calcium depositing process. When we exited the caves, we took a bush walk for just under a kilometer but there was little wildlife to see in the heat of the day. The trail took us through weathered limestone outcrops that had an almost basaltic look, through having been blackened by multiple bush fires. The recent rains eliminated this possibility during our visit and the plants, grasses and trees with their fire blackened trunks, all glistened green with the moisture.
Back in the bus and blessing the air-conditioner - sized for 22 passengers instead of just the two of us, we continued south to Mataranka, pulling into the Bitter Springs caravan park. The Bitter Springs are “hot springs” similar to the Katherine Hot Springs we have enjoyed for the past few days. The same crystal clear waters overhung by tall Fan Palm trees and Pandanus but the flow is larger than Katherine forming wider pools with more current. The springs lay just a short walk from our campsite and after our soak, Annette headed over to the park office to enquire about their “Agile Wallaby”. The animal in question is perhaps 24 inches tall and we were warned that if the caravan door is open, she will scoot inside. She loves treats like grapes but the local children have taught her to eat potato chips. Annette got to stroke her and coo over her and this alone was the worth the price of the campsite. We later saw the wallaby hopping at high speed across the park after one of the other campers. She was just begging for food however.
December 4, 2014
Yesterday we walked the half kilometer or so to the “Katherine Hot Springs”, a natural series of crystal clear water ponds that hold a year round temperature of 90F (32 C). They are hardly to be considered “hot” when the ambient air temperature is hovering around 100F. We floated lazily in the water under the shade of overhanging Pandanus trees. A truly great way to waste away a pleasant hour or so. We finally managed to raise enough energy to drive into town to collect Annette’s new Akubra hat, that has now been fitted with a chinstrap to maintain its position on her head. The other major task was to drive into the bay of a “drive through liquor store”, in order to load up on vital fluid replacements. The liquor stores do not open until after 2:00 p.m. and we have been amazed at the crowds of aborigines lounging around on the sidewalks, or sitting in the shade of an alley in anticipation of this daily event. By 2:30 the crowds had noticeably thinned and the customers dispersed to wherever they hang in the heat of the day.
Today we walked back to the hot springs for another exhausting session of drifting slowly in a tropical paradise with a cold beer in hand. We met Lauren at the pool and she invited us to join her for the Annual Katherine Christmas Parade. This was a wonderful low-key affair that brought us mentally back to when we lived in small town Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Today the police had closed traffic on a side street, plus shut down all nearby sales of alcohol for the day. There were stalls selling food, slushies and ice cream, plus locally made crafts, while the Christmas Parade itself was a series of “floats” of local clubs, school groups, fire department and local businesses. With Santa’s elves throwing candy and beer koozies (OZ speak – “stubby holders”), it was more like Mardis Gras than Christmas but then temperatures in the 90’s do not make you think much of snow and reindeer.
December 3, 2014
This morning we awoke to the terrible news that our neighbor and dear friend, Bob Lerma, had died of a sudden heart attack. Bob was 69 and when we began to discuss plans for a “walkabout” around Australia, at the time we were sitting in Bob and Sylvia’s kitchen, quaffing beer, while Bob somehow managed to barbeque lamb chop hors d’oeuvres which seemed to go remarkably well with the beer. We had even discussed the possibility of Bob and Sylvia joining us on this adventure in Australia. Bob Lerma was a good friend, a good neighbor and a “good mate”. He will be missed.
December 2, 2014
At 0728 hours this morning, we pulled into the Toyota dealer, waited 2 minutes for them to open the door to the service department and then 10 minutes later, a mechanic pulled the bus into a bay to begin work. The bus has just passed 220,000 kms. and we have driven it near 45,000 kms. since we purchased it. It needed a scheduled oil change, new oil filter, new fuel filter and air cleaner filter. There were no other customers. We sat in the waiting room at the dealership with Annette editing pictures on a laptop and me reading news on an iPad. After one and a half hours, Annette asked me, “Why are they taking so long? I replied, “They haven’t finished going through your underwear drawer yet” but nevertheless asked the service desk girl for a status. She returned to say that they had broken one of the studs on the air cleaner cover and were installing a replacement bolt. It would be ready in another thirty minutes. By the time three hours had passed, I again asked for a status and this time she reported that the mechanics were on “smoko” (morning tea break) but would be finished soon. Total time for the oil change was three and a half hours. I see a franchise opportunity here for “Jiffy Lube”. I note that Jiffy Lube’s price for the thirty minute service I requested is around US$45 plus the cost of the fuel and air-filter. Toyota’s price was AU$600.
We checked into the nearby Boab Tree Caravan Park and floated in the pool for the afternoon. In the evening, campsite neighbors Brendan and Lauren invited us for ride in their car to the Victoria River low water bridge. The sky above was thick with the silhouettes of fruit bats, seemingly in their “millions”. The sound of their squeaking was near deafening and we were told that they launch nightly from their roosts and follow the course of the river. We are camped next to a mango tree in the park and the ground at the base of the tree is littered with partially eaten mangoes. We can hear them moving through the tree branches (the bats that is) and occasionally there is the clamor of a territorial dispute.
December 1, 2014
The route out of Kununurra runs between two rugged escarpments that define the boundaries of the Victoria River flood plain. If these escarpments were closer together, you would probably call them a “gorge” but the spectacular cliffs diverge as you head east and the highway runs along the flat flood plain.
We stopped to see the Gregory’s Tree, a Boab tree near where the explorer Augustus Gregory camped with his party on 2nd. July, 1856. They marked up the tree with some graffiti and left a letter detailing their discoveries in an “oven”, just in case they never made it back. We would have taken a looksee but it required several kilometers of driving on an unsealed road. Not today. We passed trees with roosting black cockatoos and our first “Crocodile Warning” sign, reminding us that the Victoria river is not for swimmers.
We pulled into the Victoria River Roadhouse for fuel and then parked the bus under some shade while we attempted to repeat our 2013 “croc fishing” exploit from the “old” Victoria River bridge. Just as before, we used empty beer cans, tied to the end of a monofilament line and we dangled these and splashed them in the water. The water level was very low, much less than we had expected, as we had noticed some evidence of recent light flooding on the approach road. A couple of fish investigated the cans but no crocodile. We did see a small freshwater croc, floating lazily in the river about fifty yards away but it sank just after Annette snapped a picture.
By the time we reached Katherine, it had just started to rain and we pulled into the Riverside Caravan Park adjacent to the Toyota dealer where we have an appointment tomorrow for an oil change on the bus.
November 30, 2014
After yesterday’s longer than expected drive, we decided on a “down day”, besides which, the bus has just passed 220,000 kms. and needs an oil change.
In the park laundry, Annette washed everything that didn’t move, whilst I tracked down the USA real estate taxes and paid these. I also signed up Annette for Obamacare medical insurance, since her current policy is cancelled by the government at the end of December. There is a “choice” of a single provider, the same company that she is currently using but for the new “Affordable” policy, the premiums increase from $283 / month to $595 / month, an increase of 110%. Then the plan pays absolutely nothing until we have shelled out another $12,000 for the deductible. If you pretend that you live somewhere in India or Europe, for example, and want to buy travel insurance for a 6 month visit to the USA, then you can buy real health insurance for a fraction of this amount, almost a throwback to the ‘60s. But then you would have to add the penalty expense of the 2% tax on income that is, or isn’t a tax, I forget which, for not having an Obamacare rip off insurance plan that is, or isn’t insurance.
The weather has been fine and our stay in the near empty park is like living in a tropical botanical gardens. We have wandered amongst the coconut palms, listening to the exotic bird calls and been fascinated by the lizards and insects. There is a damp patch of ground, probably a drain overflow, that has attracted almost a hundred yellow butterflies. They settle closely together, fold their wings into yellow triangles and look like a miniature sailing regatta. Suddenly a lizard darts into their midst and a swirling tornado of yellow butterflies erupts, leaving a single lizard with a butterfly in its mouth. If the lizard doesn’t move, the butterflies settle around him again. You can watch this stuff all day but instead, we headed for the pool to float lazily for the afternoon until we were chased inside by a peal of nearby thunder. In the park laundry “give away pile”, Annette found a DVD copy of “A Town Like Alice”, a 1956 black and white movie based on Nevil Schute’s novel of the same name. We watched this movie to get us “in the groove” for our trip to Alice Springs.
November 29, 2014
When we awoke this morning, the wallabies were still scattered around the bus and a three foot monitor lizard was examining the bus door. We intended on an easy day and decided we would just drive to Halls Creek, a little under 290 kms. There was almost no traffic on the highway and the terrain reminded us strongly of New Mexico, with solitary mesas and rugged escarpments. The rocks in hues of red, ochers and browns, the dirt an almost dazzling paprika red, the grasses and scattered bushes in every possible shade of green. Our route took us between the Pilljara Ranges, Jones Range, Sparke Range, McClintock Range and Mueller Ranges. These peaks belong to the Kimberley Mountains and provide an abrupt change from the almost flat lands we have traversed from Exmouth. We experienced a brief rain but yesterday’s challenging winds were almost entirely absent.
We had watched some Australian news on the TV last night and had seen that there had been severe weather behind us and a tornado north of Perth. One casualty was a campervan driven by three young Asians, which was flipped onto its roof. Fortunately none were hurt but I recognized the survivors as amongst those who had failed to wave back at Annette the day before. I’m not saying there is a connection but......be warned!
We arrived in Halls Creek around noon and decided that since there is an art gallery at the community in Warmun that Annette wanted to revisit, we would continue our drive for another hour down the highway. In due course we found the gallery, which was naturally closed. Annette peered longingly through the windows but they do not cater to week-end customers and we were not about to hang around here until Monday. Feeling distinctly dissed, we decided to blow off the caravan park in Warmun and stop instead at the Doon Doon Roadhouse, another hour down the track.
It was beautiful drive and the colors of the scenery were wonderful and deepened as the afternoon waned. We had already stopped for extensive photo-shoots of termite mounds and Boab trees and the day was leaving. The Doon Doon roadhouse offered the most expensive diesel we have seen in Australia and looked entirely abandoned. However, there was an “Open” sticker on the door and Annette went inside to investigate. She soon learned that the caravan park and restaurant have both closed down. We didn’t need diesel and certainly not at the offered price so we headed onwards towards the next available caravan park - another hours drive away at Kununnurra. By the time we pulled into the Ivanhoe Village it was getting positively dark and we gratefully backed into a site in the near empty park, hooked up the electricity and fired up the air conditioner. A long day but a memorable drive through some truly magnificent scenery. “When the Boabs Bloom”....could be the title of a book!
November 28, 2014
We began the day with a trip to “down town” Broome to find the grocery and hardware store. The Boab trees in Chinatown on Carnarvon Street were decorated with large red Xmas balls and I jammed the bus into a “too small” center median parking spot so that we could get a picture. With shopping completed, we headed east again on the Great Northern Highway, keeping a wary eye open for the late morning roadside grazers and watched as a flock of red-tailed black cockatoos flew across the road with their characteristic “funereal” slow wing flap.
At one rest area where we stopped there was a sign claiming, “the aliens have landed” and calling upon the reader to notify the authorities if a cane toad was spotted. Cane toads? It seems that there is a lot of very dry country between here and the sugar cane growing areas of Queensland where cane toads were introduced by the same “all-knowing” government in 1935 in an attempt to control cane beetles. However, a quick check with Wikipedia indicated that Darwin was reached long ago. The dry parking lot at the rest stop also had small exoskeletons of crabs mixed in with the dirt. We are dozens of miles from the sea and I assume that these came from brackish water in the creeks.
Eastbound again we began to see light brown termite mounds that are “spikey” like stalagmites, rather than the huge, mushroom like mounds common in the west. We were slowed in order to cross single lane bridges, a fact that still astonishes us. There are but two highway arteries crossing Australia from east to west and these bear the massive “road-train” trucks, plus of course the occasional tourist. We move to the center of the highway and look down the long passage of the bridge to see if the other end is clear as there is no passing space. As we transit, we monitor the “river” below in order to gauge the level of water saturation in the ground at the start of this “wet-season”. Most streams we see are not yet flowing and perhaps have a billabong on one side of the highway and dry river bed on the other. We bypassed the turnoff for the town of Derby and noted that we are now back in “crocodile country”.
On our approach to Fitzroy Crossing, the highway drops into the flood plain of the Fitzroy river and the trees look green and lush. We stopped for the night at the Fitzroy River Lodge and found ourselves as the only campers in this sprawling resort. We parked under shade trees, while being carefully observed by dozens of wallabies. It was relatively early in the day and we spent the afternoon drifting in the pool at the main lodge. Parked adjacent to the pool was a wireline truck and the only fellow traveller we encountered was one of the wireline company engineers. This rig was travelling east from a job near Broome. Australia has “in seam coal gasification” projects, which is a process of producing hydrocarbon gas from subterranean coal beds that would be uneconomic to mine by conventional methods. They pump oxygen or steam down a well and ignite the coal. The underground combustion process produces a combustible gas “syn-gas” that is then extracted from a second well. If the coal has low permeability, “fraccing” or hydraulic fracturing of the coal is used to provide a pathway for the gas to flow. The engineer we chatted with indicated that their typical operating depth was in the range of 2,000 to 6,000 feet, they worked only “cased” holes (drill holes that have been lined with steel pipe, cemented in place) and that they often used a “slickline”. I had to look up “slick-line” to see that it is a braided cable with no electrical conductors inside. It is simply used to support various mechanical devices for such tasks as perforating the steel pipe, extracting damaged components etcetera.
On our walk back to the bus, the wallabies paused in their grazing to stare at us. We were carrying large inflated pool floats and walked within perhaps fifteen feet of one animal and yet they didn’t flee. Perhaps they identified us as oversized insects with brightly colored wings.
November 27, 2014
Today is Thanksgiving but in Australia, nobody seems to notice. We made an early departure from the caravan park, the highway four lanes wide and two lanes width at the round-abouts (called “traffic circles” in the USA, although few know what they are for). Everyone seemed to be in a hurry, driving aggressively and reluctant to give way to a lane-changing, sleepy tourist driving a bus. We headed north towards the coastal highway, passing the white mountain of salt waiting to be shipped, spotted a fuel station on the left and began to move into the exit lane for the turnoff. A “Ute” had just passed us and lost something from the truck bed, so he too slowed as though going to exit towards the fuel station. He then changed his mind and abruptly U-turned to the right (we are driving on the left, remember) across our bows. Unfortunately a second Ute was passing us who T-Boned him. Very exciting, lots of noise and tire smoke and nobody hurt. We refueled and then came back to the accident scene to provide witness information but by the time we arrived, both vehicles were already leaving. Both vehicles looked like company owned trucks and in Australia, liability insurance is paid when you pay your registration fee. If you haven’t renewed the registration, the camera on the next police car you pass will register the fact and alert the officer. The result, no uninsured motorists! What a concept.
Driving even more carefully now, we continued east with most of the termite mounds wearing white hard hats. There must be enough hardhats scattered through the Australian bush to outfit several mines. The need for driving care was not the termites however but the number of cattle loose on the roadside. Added to this was a vicious gusting cross-wind, followed by an intense lightning storm coupled with frog strangling rain. The rain and lighting lasted for maybe an hour but the wind gusted strongly all day. The excitement comes when passing a four trailer road-train because the road is two lanes with a drop off to mud or gravel and you can see the end cars of the road train weaving at you, as the driver fights to keep his rig on the road. If he does drop his inside wheels off the bitumen, then you get a shower of stones targeted at the new windshield you just installed and the new front panel paint job that removed all of the previous stone chips.
The rain ended and the sky struggled to find blue and sunshine. We passed a large and very dead, striped snake, immediately identified as a “Death Adder” from Annette’s “road kill guide”. We noted that before an anti-venin was available, about 50 percent of bite victims died. Okay, remember the stripes – no wait, the book continued to warn that the Death Adder buries itself in the dust, with just the tip of its tail showing. This looks like a worm and is used to attract prey to its fangs. So don’t pick up “worms” either.
The red termite mounds we have been seeing, that Annette described as, “like triceratops droppings” (- see movie “Jurassic Park”), have changed color to grey, indicating perhaps a change of soil composition and as we turned into the approach to Broome, we saw the first Boab trees. Unlike the Boabs in Perth, these were leafed and some had the hint of blossoms. We stopped for the night at the Cable Beach Caravan Park, which had a light sprinkling of other travellers, or perhaps brave souls intending to spend cyclone season here.
November 26, 2014
Yesterday we made the decision to transit Highway “One” across the north of Australia to get to the Stuart Highway. This called for an early start and we were on the highway at a near unprecedented 0730 hours, scanning the road ahead warily for wildlife. There were lots of emus on the road plus evidence of at least one recent and “fresh” kangaroo kill. To add to the challenge, there were groups of sheep ambling across the highway, plus lambs at road’s edge, gambolling and trying to feed from their mothers. We made it south to the Burkett Road, hung a left and then had to brake hard for a pair of emus. One tripped on a barbed wire fence and was thrashing as we went past. I next spotted something white ahead on the verge which revealed itself as a flock of large, sulphur crested cockatoos. The group to the left flew off in that direction and the pair in the road flew to the right but at the last minute, one reversed course and I heard the thump as he went beneath our wheel. What a shame. No way that something as delicate as a bird can survive a four and a half ton bus. Another close miss was a pair of Bustards that flew up from the bush on the right with one turning to cross our path. It must have missed the solar panels by an inch. These birds weigh in at 30 to 40 pounds and leave their mark if you are unlucky enough to collide. As the sun rose in the sky, the risk of colliding with wildlife diminished somewhat when the dawn grazers began to nap.
We turned north on Highway One reaching the latitude of Exmouth. It was noticeably warmer and the vegetation looked drier, some heavy clouds with Virga “rain” beneath confirming the low humidity. The Spring flowers are still in bloom, providing a sea of color in places. As we approached the mining town of Karratha, we shared the highway with more and more road-trains and mining “Utes” bearing their signature flagpole and flag, like kid’s bicycles. These people are in a hurry, they are on business and they don’t usually wave. The terrain is of mesas and rugged hills, looking a little like New Mexico or Arizona and multiple dust devils spin in the heat of the day.
Our goal was Port Hedland and we gratefully pulled into the camp-site after a long day on the road. We have a reasonable weather window at the moment but will need to double check before we transit the rain shadow of the Kimberley’s. We noticed that this caravan park has buried cyclone anchors in the various sites, plus the offering of tie down kits for sale at the office. We have heard that some folks will ride out a cyclone in their van but then there are people who will go surfing when a hurricane approaches.
Annette was fascinated in that the ladies wash room bore a recent warning of snakes in the park. King Browns, Tiger Snakes, Death Adders and Dugites were suggested (Annette’s snake book maintains that Tiger Snakes and Dugites don’t live in the north). The recommendation was to leave them alone and contact the office. Naturally Annette went looking for snakes. She found distinctive serpentine tracks in the dry sand of the park, as though a serpent had visited a series of trees. She returned to the bus for her camera and a four foot long stick to poke the vegetation with. I noticed in her identification guide that the Taipan snake has been milked for venom and in a single “milk”, enough venom was obtained that would kill an estimated 12,000 guinea pigs. OK then, here is my idea. If you see a snake, you just toss down 12,000 guinea pigs and the snake should be sufficiently distracted to enable you beat a hasty retreat. So just when are snakes dangerous? I read “in late evening and on a warm summers night they hunt rodents. You should always wear solid shoes and carry a flashlight when traversing the campground at night”. NOW THEY TELL ME!! In future I will use the on-board toilet on the bus - that is until it snows.
November 23 through November 25, 2014
It’s the week-end in Australia and we have lazed around watching movies and swimming – well “floating”, in the park’s pool in the heat of the afternoon. When we pulled in to camp, we picked this site for its shade but apparently we are moored under the best climbing tree in the park. There have been eight or more children, ranging in age from a diaper dragging, maybe three years old, to sophisticated ten years olds. The latter have designated this tree as “ground zero” and they have a hammock strung up from a branch – with both “ends” of the hammock tied to the same spot – sorta like a “kid sling”. Heads and feet are seen sticking out from the pendant bag with usually more legs and attached feet dangling from the branches above. The tree also hosts a couple of generations of Crested Cockatoos (parrots) who don’t seem to mind sharing their tree with the kids and provide a background squawk to accompany the kid noises. This morning we found a bucket filled with water balloons at the base of the tree but were out running errands and missed the ensuing battle. When Annette gave the kids additional ammunition in the form of more balloons, the father of at least some of this brood, just sighed heavily.
We have been plotting our next move and have made a reservation to take the bus on a ferry boat to Tasmania. (For those of you who are geographically challenged, we are currently in the top left corner and Tasmania is in the bottom right corner. The next question was “how to get there?”. We researched, got all sorts of conflicting opinions and finally decided that we will go east on Highway “1” to Katherine, Northern Territories and then south on the Stuart Highway through Alice Springs. Turn left when we get to the bottom. The reason for the uncertainty is that this is the beginning of Australia’s “wet season” and the route we have selected is often impassible after a couple of days of heavy rainfall. We spoke to one “local” last night who told us that when he arrived at the Victoria River crossing he was stopped by police. “Why can’t I go on?”, he asked. “Well sir, the river is twenty feet above the bridge at the moment”. That would do it.
On the next campsite is a French couple, Eddie and Margarite, from Chamonix, travelling with their 8 year old daughter Loal on a “round world tour”. Chamonix is a village lying in the shadow of Mont Blanc. For Victorian mountaineers, Chamonix was the Mecca of Alpine climbing and the surrounding peaks are still very popular today. Of course the days when you put on your woolen “plus fours” and “nailed” leather boots before roping yourself to the next climber with a hempen rope are long gone. Besides being one of Europe’s oldest ski resorts, it is also a center for extreme sports such as paragliding and Wingsuit flying. Eddie teaches the former and has just returned from a stint where he began a paragliding school in Saudi Arabia at the behest of a local Prince. Eddie had first noticed our bus back in the Bunning’s parking lot in Geraldton – hard to forget with its distinctive, “I eat my road kill” bumper sticker on the rear, courtesy of my co-pilot. Loal’s blog is at http://loalbardin.blogspot.fr/
We also re-visited the lighthouse on the NW tip of Australia, where we gazed out over the Indian Ocean. You can see there is an inshore reef but off the point, some offshore shallow caused the incoming deep ocean swells to rear up into a huge breaker, a wall of foam and a statement of immense hydraulic power. No whale sightings – wrong season. No Great White Shark sightings and the horizon was a little too hazy to spot the offshore oil facilities. We had driven the highway carefully out of Exmouth as there were several emus crossing the road. We had seen emus in the caravan park, plus a father and two chicks right downtown, eating the bushes across from the post office. We knew this was daddy ‘cos he is the one who hatches and raises the kids. Mother just lays them and takes off. Slut!
For our final night at Exmouth, bush poet and busker Ed Mahon, gave an impromptu performance just across from our parked bus. The “tree kids” rounded up the audience and we sat in our camp chairs in late afternoon, with clear blue skies and sunshine above. Overhead were flocks of squawking parrots, plus kids just wandered randomly in and around Ed, watching intently as he played the penny whistle or accordion and then losing interest in the poetry as the adults sat spellbound. A good end to our Exmouth visit.
We dit it!!! All the way around!
November 22, 2014
Northbound again and we were driving through dry country, with fewer bushes and more red dirt visible between them. Before long, the bushes were gone and empty, dry grass land stretched out before us. We passed a road sign indicating that we had just crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, where on December 21st, a month from now, the post holding up the road sign should cast no noon shadow, with the sun directly overhead. Our latitude was South 23 degrees 26 minutes as we drove by and almost instantly the landscape was dotted with huge red termite mounds – how did they know? The mounds were six feet tall, like rusted snowmen and of course we had to stop to take pictures, with Annette stepping carefully through the Spinifex grass, looking to avoid poisonous snakes. We knew that there were reptiles such as Monitor lizards around, as we had seen two live specimens, one crossing the road (our wheels passed either side of him) and the other, larger one observing from the safety of the roadside and looking on with the disapproval and disdain that only such lizards can exhibit.
We left the North West Coastal highway just beyond Minilya- heading up the minor road to Exmouth. More dry country and a low range of hills to the west blocking any view of the Indian Ocean. Our drive was interrupted, just before noon, when we reached the intersection of the Burkett Road, the latter coming in from the east. We stopped at the intersection to take pictures because....WE HAVE DONE IT!!! We have circumnavigated Australia by driving our bus all the way around! Jo and Humpy stopped their rental car to ask if we were OK and were promptly conscripted to take our picture. Very nice people and typical of the folks you meet in the Outback.
Continuing our journey, we drove the 90 kms. into Exmouth over the same highway we had driven in 2013 pulling into the Ningaloo caravan park where we had also stayed before. The afternoon was warm and we cooled off in the park swimming pool. It is Saturday in Australia, we are at the mid-point of this trip and we plan to stay here for a few days to catch up on chores and plan our next move.
November 21, 2014
This morning we asked at the caravan park office when the Telegraph Station museum might open and the owner promptly sent her husband across to unlock it for us and turn the lights on. There were examples and information on stromatolites but for me the major point of interest was the ancient telegraphy equipment. I had seen lots of cowboy movies where the telegraph operator would click away on a morse key and receive clicking noises in return from a device hooked to the line. I had thought it would be difficult to tell the difference between a dot and a dash, just based upon the sound difference between an "up click" and a "down click" of a fraction of a millisecond and today I learned that this was not the method used. Unlike "modern" morse code where an oscillator produces a tone (short beep = dot, long beep = dash) the original telegraph used three clicks for a dash and a single click for a dot. A time gap equal to the time of three clicks separated the letters.
The Hamelin Pool repeater station had a team of men who would decode a message and then manually re-key it again for the next section of line. The labor intensive procedure was eliminated following the introduction of automatic telegraph repeaters, in fact one of Edisons' earliest inventions was an automatic repeater in 1864. Apparently this technology did not make it to Hamelin Pool until much later, however a delightful story concerns the connection of Hamelin Pool with technology giant NASA.
In 1964 the first test of an unmanned Gemini capsule was on the launching pad at Cape Canaveral. Woomera would track it in the Southern Hemisphere using their tracking station on the west coast of Australia at Carnarvon. Just one minute after liftoff, a lightning strike vaporized 10 feet of the telephone trunk line connecting Carnarvon to the world. Some quick thinking telecom people in Perth remembered that the original telegraph line, running up the Australian coast, was still in existence. It was a single copper wire using the ground for return and was thought to be unreliable because of salt corrosion due to its proximity to the sea. This is why the new telephone line had been moved inland. The telegraph line had already been sold for salvage but the contractor had yet to begin work stripping the copper and removing the poles. The postmistress at Hamelin Pool was awakened at 10:30 p.m. by a call using a "ringdown magneto line" (the "crank phone" you see in the movies). She had four months experience at the time, recognized the emergency and thought she had "better get dressed". She then proceeded to pass on thousands of coded numbers to the technicians at Carnarvon station to provide guidance for their antennas, as well as passing data back to Woomera. NASA sent a thank you letter and her employers granted her overtime pay worth AU 5 dollars and 95 cents.
We hit the road again, heading north. A beautiful drive with clear blue skies and a few fluffy white clouds. As we approached Carnarvon, there were emus, goats, sheep and cattle feeding in the bush and ample evidence that they are often victims to vehicles. We passed the huge white dishes of the Carnarvon tracking station and hoped their Wi-Fi is working.
November 20, 2014
A late start but we were on the road again, driving east across the Kalbarri National Park. The landscape was a sea of spring flowers, bushes blossoming in improbable hues, some thrusting spindly spikes skywards bearing orchid-like trumpets. There were sections with no flowers and in these areas both the bushes and the road itself looked scorched, we assumed by recent bush fires.
We turned north again on “The Great North West Highway” and after crossing the green of the Murchison River, the terrain again changed, drier now with fewer flowering bushes. Tania had recommended the Billabong Roadhouse for supper but we arrived there around 1:30 p.m. and instead, ordered the “Big Breakfast”. Fat, salt and carbohydrates with a few nitrites thrown in! Does it get any better than this?,
On the south end of Shark Bay is Hamelin Pool and stromatolites. We pulled in here and walked down to the water’s edge to observe these strange formations.
Wikipedia states, "The stromatolites in Hamelin Pool were discovered by surveyors working for an oil exploration company in 1956 and were the first living examples of structures built by cyanobacteria, the direct descendants of the oldest form of photosynthetic life on earth." The mats of weathered rock we observed looked like misshapen and eroded limestone structures. It is not surprising that they had camel drawn wagons driven over them for half a century before their discovery. The camels had been hauling wool and Hamelin Pools wool shed was the terminus for the area's wool production, where it was transshipped to shallow lighters before being transshipped once more to the deeper draught vessels in Shark Bay. At that time there was no road access in this part of Australia.
Hamelin Bay had been chosen as the site of a repeater station of the telegraph line from Perth to the Gold Fields on the western end of the Australian northern coast and was established in 1884. It was not a popular posting for the telecommunication employees of the 19th century. The original building, now used as a museum, was closed when we arrived and an hour or so before sunset, we walked up the low hill behind the station. Halfway up the hill was a lone gravesite of a 7 month old baby who died in March, 1898. As we gazed behind us at the few primitive buildings that comprised the telegraph station (the wool shed had been torn down and relocated some time ago) we saw the empty bush spreading to the horizon. What an awful feeling of helplessness for the parents of a sick child - no "flying doctor" 116 years ago.
We topped the ridge and admired the flagpole, used as a navigation marker by the wool lighters navigating a flat and mostly featureless shallow bay, and before us were the quarries. Here the enterprising local settlers mined "Coquina", a sedimentary rock composed of tiny shells that have become cemented together and form a lightweight, highly insulating building material, similar to the "Pumicecrete" used in New Mexico. The Coquina was cut into blocks using hand cross-cut saws, such as you would use for cutting lumber and the blocks were hauled away by camel cart. The quarry is closed today for mining and is preserved as a historical feature.
We had passed a freshly dead kangaroo on the way in to this location and the Caravan park owner had lamented to me that she had hit one this very morning and damaged the whole side of her car which had just been repaired from a previous kangaroo encounter. It was already late afternoon and we decided to stay here for the the night. (She probably keeps stuffed kangaroos to salt the road with)
November 19, 2014
Annette had researched “the Principality of Hutt River” , wanted to visit and she further knew we must be nearby but where was it? The first gas station where we enquired insisted it was, “Up the road, lots of signage - You can’t miss it!”. When the odometer indicated we must have missed the place, we stopped at another gas station for directions. This time we were directed to reverse our course by about a hundred yards and drive some 10 kms. on a dirt road. About 10 kms from the blacktop, we received our first encouragement, a small blue sign that indicated another 30 kms to go.
The red dirt / gravel road was not too badly wash boarded but we heard a curious thumping from underneath the bus. I finally noticed what looked like dozens of grasshoppers fleeing our passage, some unsuccessfully. The roads were empty, there was no signs of habitation, just empty harvested fields stretching to the horizon. Our GPS complained and whined about our course but she did admit that we were on named roads and eventually and after a couple of turns, we arrived at the “Principality of Hutt River”. http://www.principality-hutt-river.com/
The history of Hutt River is simply amazing and has been fleshed out in detail in Wikipedia. The story began in 1970 when the government of Western Australia imposed a production quota on the Casley family, who had been wheat farming on 4,000 hectares. Essentially, the Casley's were told that only one tenth of the crop they had raised could be sold, no appeal. Leonard Casley was sure that a mistake had been made, since what had been promised the farmers was only a small reduction in production quotas but he was informed by the then Governor of Western Australia, no correction or adjustment would be granted. The law had not yet been passed by Parliament so Casley filed a claim under the Law of Tort for damages of AU$52 million dollars against the Queen of England as the Governor was her representative. Casley then used the “Law of Unjust Enrichment” to successfully seize government land around his farm, in an attempt to increase his wheat quota. Two weeks later, the government introduced a bill in Parliament to compulsorily acquire his land or “resume” their holdings. Casley responded by switching to International Law by seceding and declaring his independence from the Commonwealth of Australia. The government of Western Australia felt it couldn’t do anything without the help of the Commonwealth (sort of like the “Feds”) but the latter felt it was unconstitutional to interfere and in correspondence, inadvertently referred to Casley as the, “Administrator of the Hutt River Province”. When Australian Prime Minister William McMahon threatened Casley with “infringement of territory”, Casley styled himself, “His Majesty Prince Leonard I of Hutt” and used the British Treason Act of 1495 in which a self proclaimed monarch could not be guilty of any offence against the rightful ruler and anyone who interfered with his duties was guilty of treason. This was not the end of it as you can well imagine but Australians do love an underdog and despise arrogant bureaucrats. H.R.H. Prince Leonard has kept his land and his independent micro country ever since.
We first met Prince Leonard’s son Prince Graeme, just outside of the Principality’s post office. Inside the building, we looked at Hutt River stamps and bank notes and then HRH Prince Graeme gave us a tour and explanation of the memorabilia. This is still a working station but now focused on sheep rather than wheat. I was reminded of the brothers who built a two thirds replica of Stonehenge in their wheat fields near Kerrville, Texas. What else do wheat farmers do between planting and reaping? The Principality of Hutt River goes way beyond Stonehenge replicas and the various buildings and monuments were very tastefully executed. Prince Leonard I has surrounded himself with all of the trappings of monarchy, he has reached out graciously to diplomats, churchmen and fellow monarchs across the globe and many have responded in kind. The web-site link I indicated above is nicely done and provides lots of information as to the Constitution of Hutt River, Defense Forces, Postal Services – the list is endless. We met Prince Leonard himself and at 82 years old, he is a bright and interesting character.
For us this was good fun but I can well imagine the anguish and stress this family endured, not knowing if the government with their guns and unlimited taxpayers money behind them, was going to snatch away the Casley’s livelihood on the whim of the moment from some slimebag politician. Go on, ask me how I really feel!
All too soon, we bade our farewells, crossed the border back into Australia, continuing west across another 30 kms. or so of red dirt roads before reaching the sea. We stopped for the night at Kalbarri and were suitably impressed with the quantity of Kamikaze dead grasshoppers across our formerly white bus. The white panel below the windshield is now yellow and green and we asked for a waiver (duly granted) of the “no vehicle washing” rule, for a bucket wash of at least the front of the bus.
November 18, 2014
Heading north again we left Guilderton and followed the Indian Ocean Drive as it snaked it way between sea and white sand dunes, through the bush of Western Australia. The “Christmas trees” (Nuytsia Floribunda) were in full bloom, with their bright orange blossoms standing up like candles in the branches. The Grass Trees (formerly known as the now politically incorrect “Black Boys”) are spectacular and look as though they are from another planet. They often have a charred and blackened trunk that resists bush fires, topped by a spherical bush of grass like the 60’s “Afro” hair style. From this shoots up one or more long vertical “spears”, maybe eight feet in length and sometimes white with blossoms. “Grass Tree” is such a nondescript name for this unusual tree.
We stopped for lunch at a small cove, parking next to the beach. The sand was near covered with sea weed on the strand and we decided if we owned all of the cove, we would get a tractor and clean up the beach. Our house would stand on the south, on rocky higher ground and the windows would face Africa across the Indian Ocean.
Continuing north we saw several buildings, constructed mostly of corrugated metal and often, little more than lean to’s, built in the bush between the highway and the beach. We wondered if this was legal and who indeed owned the land. There was not much evidence of “improvements” in the various buildings, as abandoned, rusting vehicles really don’t fall into this category.
We stopped for the night at Geraldton, at the “African Sunset” caravan park, associated with a hotel and restaurant. We decided to eat at their restaurant and the view from the dining room was interesting, with a reef a mile or so offshore, no small boats of any kind fishing, just the empty ocean with breakers over the far reef. As twilight approached, a distant navigation light began to wink and a ocean going barge left Geraldton, turned to starboard and vanished into the gathering dusk, bound for some unknown port. I had just remarked that there would be no “green flash” tonight, when the sky near exploded with an awesome display of sunset color from what was such an unpromising, cloudy sky. As the unseen sun descended further below the horizon, the higher altitude clouds in turn became fire. Well worth the eight bucks for the beer.
November 17, 2014
Last night Tania had loaded our flat tire into her car and dropped it off this morning at a local Perth repair shop on her way to work. We had a more leisurely takeoff, since we weren’t trying to get a couple of kids ready for school and by the time we drove over to the repair shop, the tire had a new tube, had been blessed by the mechanics as undamaged and was swapped out for the spare. The guys even restored my spare back under the bus leaving my hands almost spotless. I just had to look old, feeble, helpless and pay the bill. Back on the highway, we headed north up the Indian Ocean coast road and as we approached Guilderton, Annette felt the need for a good beach comb, thus we pulled into a caravan park at the mouth of the Moore River.
The park only had a few sites occupied but those that were, seemed to have a dozen toddlers each. The kids were all playing nicely and we wandered over to the river bank and observed even more children swimming in the river. This seems a great family spot, with a white sand beach just feet from the caravan park, plus ducks and seagulls to chase in the park. The Moore river is tea colored and we assumed that we were seeing its estuary. There were ducks swimming next to the kids and in the distance a white sand bar with the blue of the Indian ocean beyond. Just outside the caravan park was a sign requesting that we not damage the bar and upset the fragile environment of the river. A little puzzled by this warning we walked on, climbed a steep path to an overlook and then based upon the quantity of existing footprints, climbed over a wall and descended to the beach down a sandy trail through the bush. From this vantage we could see that the Moore river was trapped behind the narrow sand bar to our left and the steeply sloping beach to our right, with crashing waves and strong undertow. The dammed waters of the Moore were obviously higher than the Indian Ocean and as we walked the narrow spit between the two, we clearly surmised that three grandkids, fueled liberally with sugar and possessing a shovel, could cut a usable channel in about twenty minutes. What fun they could have!
We walked the length of beach, perhaps three quarters of a mile and Annette found a stick to poke gooey stuff with but there were few shells, just stranded weed, trapped jelly fish, squid (cuttlefish) bones and soft sand. On our return, the sand seemed softer, the air warmer and Annette’s tree climbing muscles started to whimper. I quoted, “The guns at Aqaba face the sea, Sherif Ali and cannot be turned round” but it didn’t help.
November 16, 2014
Last night we had stopped in Perth at Tania and Barry’s place and again parked on their lawn, the deep tire impressions from our previous visit still evident. I had made myself a mental note to recheck the rear tire pressures and this morning noticed that one of the inner rear tires looked distinctly flat. I attempted to measure its pressure but there was no valve stem visible – bad sign! The bus has dual rear tires and so the axle weight was supported by the outer tire, therefore not an immediate crisis but we moved from the lawn to a flat section of roadway, where the inner tire was swapped for the spare. This procedure felt a whole lot safer than working on the front wheels, as the bottle jack we used is trapped under the leaf springs and is not such a big risk for slipping.
Barry and Tania took us out for lunch and we all loaded into the car and headed for downtown Perth. Barry then took us on a guided tour through the downtown area, followed by a visit to Kings Park and Botanic Gardens, on the banks of the Swan estuary. Here were manicured lawns like a golf course, families picnicking, yachts sailing serenely on the Swan river below - an idyllic setting. Perth has a cosmopolitan population at just under 2 million, rarely freezes, low cyclone risk, has low humidity and sunshine. Our impression of the city is unpolluted, not particularly crowded and an attractive place to live. They do get bush fires but every place has to have some negative feature.
We walked through the park admiring the gardens and located a grove of Boab trees (believed to have been imported to Australia from Africa thousands of years ago), the largest of which is estimated at 750 years old and was transplanted here by being trucked 2,000 miles from the Kimberley region of Western Australia. All of the Boabs in the park were leafless and we were assured that this is “normal” and what they do in the “dry” season.
Our next stop was Whiteman Park where there was much kangaroo poo in evidence and is the source of the live kangaroos we had seen when we first approached Tania and Barry’s home. There was also a sign at the park entrance warning of feral buffaloes but we didn’t see any and a large black animal weighing in at a ton is hard to miss. There was also warnings of trams crossing the road and there is indeed a vintage electric tram providing tram rides between a mussel farm and the village. Our destination however was the “Lolly shop” in the village and while the kids got lollies, the adults made do with “gourmet” ice cream bars. Barry made one more stop on the way home and this was to visit the model airplane and model “off road” buggy racing clubs. The buggy races were fun to watch, as skillful drivers raced the cars around a dirt track with tight serpentine bends and humps. The cars were often airborne and although there were stewards strategically placed to right any capsizes and return them to the track, there were several drivers so skilled, they could not only stay on the track but pick a route through the jumps and pass other vehicles without mishap. My favorites were the model aircraft and there were several bi-planes that were huge as models and the pilots obviously super skilled. They were practicing for an airshow / competition and flew complex aerobatics with multiple aircraft. The most amazing craft we watched was a helicopter. It flew more like a dragonfly than a model and seemingly defied the laws of physics. It could fly stably upside down and therefore the pilot must have had the ability to completely reverse the pitch of the blades. It also “hovered” with its nose pointing at the ground and its tail vertical and was able to “jump” forwards and backwards using the main rotor. This is impossible. There was no thrust holding it up. I saw it happen. I still don’t believe it. A great visit and a great day.
November 15, 2014
We spent the night at Manjimup (Meaning place of water with bulrush roots) and in the morning set out for the nearby Truffle and Wine Company, where black Perigord truffles are produced. The company used to be the Wine and Truffle Company but since 2003 when the first truffle was unearthed, truffle production has since dominated and the renamed enterprise is now largest producer of black truffles in the world, exporting to gourmet kitchens all over the globe, including of course, the USA and France. The truffles are a fungus found at the roots of Oak and Hazelnut trees and are harvested using trained “truffle dogs”. Since we were visiting on the week-end, the truffle dogs were all on break and the harvesting doesn’t begin until next May anyway. Truffles sell for around US$4,000 per pound in France and here at the truffiere, they had frozen truffle for sale at AU$37 per gram. That works out at around $16,700 per pound Australian dollars but I am sure we could have made a better deal for a volume purchase. Sadly we didn’t get to pet the truffle dogs (Labradors) and continued our drive through the spectacular forests, charming small towns, and then up the coast road to Perth.
November 14, 2014
Back to the auto electrical shop this morning and we parked in the lot until around 9:15 a.m., when the “Toll” delivery service dropped off the needed parts. Simon and Allan of “Autospark”, jumped right into swapping out the damaged alternator from our bus but soon discovered that not only was the old alternator damaged with “ovalled out” bolt holes but the mounting bracket on the engine was similarly damaged. Simon solved this problem by jumping into his truck and taking off to the nearby wrecking yard, returning with a salvaged replacement bracket. By 11:30 a.m. we were back on the road, new alternator installed, driven by its new belts and heading for Shannon National Park and the Great Forest Trees Walk.
The attraction was the tree top walk through a grove of giant “Tingle trees” at Walpole. (I’m not making this up, that’s what they’re called). The “walk” is a series of linked walkways, suspended between poles like suspension bridges. The walkways allowed us to ascend 130 feet or so into the canopy of the “Tingle” grove, with great views into the distance. Looking down you can visualize what the birds are seeing and if you “accidently” spit over the edge, it takes 8 seconds for the goober to hit bottom. The trees can grow to 250 feet or so and are some of the tallest in Australia, living up to four centuries.
We next walked at ground level through a grove ancient trees, searching the undergrowth for Quokkas. We didn’t spot any, not a surprise since they are a nocturnal marsupial about the size of a cat. The Tingle trees are often decayed at their base and naturally occurring fires will burn out this center decayed section, leaving a natural cave at the heart of the tree, with the huge bole supported by buttresses of live wood from the roots. Quite extraordinary and most of the Tingles in this grove contained these caves with walls of charred timber. We searched inside for bats that allegedly made their homes here but again, didn’t spot any.
We continued north to Pemberton driving through heavily forested countryside. Just outside Manjimup is the “Diamond Tree”, a 168 foot tall Karri tree, perhaps 250 years old, that in 1941 had a wooden cabin built upon its crest and used as a fire lookout tower. This is the ultimate “tree house”, easily accessible with a parking area just off the highway. The vertical bole of the Karri tree was made climbable by having metal spikes, like giant straight-pins, driven in to the trunk about 18 inches apart and sticking out around three feet. There was a small platform at 90 feet altitude and the metal spikes spiraled up around the trunk to this platform. Here was a warning that the balance of the climb was vertical and the spikes narrower. The final section was a fifteen foot vertical steel ladder that entered the summit platform through a shoulder width cutout. This was simply amazing. There was no fee for climbing this tree and as I pondered this, it is not so surprising since no commercial enterprise outside of Somalia would take the liability risk on something so dangerous. I cannot imagine that in a modern “nanny” state, where children must wear a helmet just to ride a toy scooter, this exhilarating experience will survive too much longer. The Pemberton visitor’s website maintains that there have been no deaths to date but there have been two tree climbing heart attacks.
Annette, who is terrified of heights and in the past has refused to walk across the two lane Taos Gorge bridge in New Mexico (565 feet above the river), shot up this tree like a squirrel chased by a cat. We climbed to the summit platform and gazed out at the surrounding Karri forest with Australia stretching to the horizons. Wonderful.
November 13, 2014
Still blowing, raining and it’s cold! Thank goodness for heaters. We arrived promptly for our appointment with the auto electrical shop and everything was going swimmingly, until I pointed out that the Coaster has a 24 volt system. The required parts won’t be available until tomorrow morning and we decided to use the opportunity for some sightseeing. Our destination was “The Gap” rocks on the southern coast, inside Torndirrup National Park. The gap is a quarry-like, naturally formed “notch” in the south facing granite cliffs. The cliffs are around 80 feet high, the “gap” itself about 60 feet across and the drop from the cliff’s edge is sheer, to a rocky base with crashing waves from the Southern Ocean. We were later told that this is a popular local spot for suicides. The earth tectonics folks claim that this part of Australia was once attached to Antarctica and with the cold wind blowing over the ice floes and a faint smell of penguin, I believe it. We looked in awe as the waves crashed below us, gasping as the bitterly cold wind drove rain gusts at us and then we scurried over to the nearby natural rock arch where more waves were crashing below. If the weather had been a trifle warmer, I would have walked over the arch to see if it would bear my weight but we will need to “photo-shop” that picture.
In the early days of settlement, the only viable industry as such, was whaling and the whalers arrived in numbers, about four years after the first colonists. Albany’s proximity to the Antarctic whale feeding grounds made it an important base for the industry and in 1952 the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company began operations. This was industrial scale whaling and continued until 1978, when the economics of whaling forced the company’s closure. The factory remains intact and together with the last whale chaser to operate in Australian waters, the M/V Cheynes IV, was preserved as a museum. The steam winches are no longer steam driven, hidden electric motors now turn the machinery and combined with hidden speakers and a sound system, provide a small taste of what it might have been like to work here. I say “small” since what was missing was the smell of decaying whale and the bang of rifles as a two man crew attempted to suppress the hundreds of sharks attracted by the blood. This factory was limited by regulation to a catch of 1,500 whales per year and the whale chasers would set out to the south on a two day trip, guided by Cessna aircraft spotters, to kill and harvest up to a score of the animals. The dead whales were towed back Cheynes Beach where steam winches would haul the 60 ton carcasses up a ramp for the fletching crew to strip the blubber for rendering to oil, while the balance of the carcass was boiled, ground and dried for animal feed. The huge whale oil storage tanks had been converted to movie theatres and we wandered from tank to tank watching short documentaries on the topics of whaling, sharks and the known biology of whales. In the old machinery shed, there were skeletons of various whales including an intact skeleton of a pygmy blue whale, nearly 80 feet in length. Adult Blue whales can be over a 100 feet in length weighing in at 200 tons. We had seen Humpback whales up close when we were sailing in Tonga but nothing like the size of these gentle monsters. An instructive visit but the lad at the grocery store checkout stated that he “hated” the Whaling Museum, because every year throughout elementary school and beyond, there was a school day trip followed by a necessary report. Perhaps if he had paid more attention, he wouldn’t be working as a grocery store checker today.
It was still raining, cold and blowing when we left the museum, so we called a “rain day”, to settle back at the caravan park with movies and popcorn.
November 12, 2014
We continued south to the city of Albany, a pretty drive marred only by the fact that the wind was gusting violently, it was overcast and occasionally raining. We parked downtown and visited the information center, running between showers and leisurely ate our lunch in the bus while watching the downtown shoppers. I then realized that we were actually parked in a “one hour” zone and two slots from a “fifteen minute” zone. We hastily decamped and fervently hope that the enforcement mechanism isn’t some mysterious electronic version that sends you a bill a month or so later. We have an appointment to have our alternator checked at a shop tomorrow morning so we relocated a nearby caravan park and spent the afternoon catching up on chores.
November 11, 2014
This morning we visited the York “sock factory”, the only one in Western Australia. Here we looked at the socks but instead bought merino wool / possum mix sweaters for each of us. Jackie, the energetic proprietor, plans to visit the USA with her husband in the near future and they want to rent Harley Davidson motorcycles and tour the famous “Route 66”. Until 1937, “Route 66” passed through Santa Fe, New Mexico, before the route was realigned to avoid some of the more daunting mountain passes and there are many historical buildings from this era that have survived.
Our road lay south along “The Great Southern Highway”. Tree lined, empty roads passing between hayfields with sheep grazing, some occasional cattle but no wildlife, except brightly colored parrots and the inevitable grey and pink galahs.
Just north of Pingelly, there was a curious thump from the engine compartment, which didn’t sound like a rock. We pulled over and looked under the bus with a mirror. Just as suspected, one of two alternator belts was missing. In Pingelly, the lad at the fuel stop recommended we try Narrogin for parts and a mechanic. This was a further 50 kms. and I estimated that the remaining alternator belt was good for somewhere between two minutes and six months. We found the parts store immediately on the outskirts of town and they sold me a matched pair of belts before mentioning there is a Toyota dealership in town.
We headed over to Toyota Service and the service manager first told me they were swamped. He then looked over the bus, looked under the bus and disappeared. I was puzzled at first with his absence but assumed he would have been more definite with telling us to buzz off. He then returned, grabbed the bus keys from us, handed us another set of keys for a nearby Toyota Camry and told us to go and get a coffee back in town. We watched in fascination as he drove the bus to the edge of an ancient loading dock, with a junior mechanic guiding him. If the bus front wheels fell off the dock, it would have made for some interesting photographs but the edge of the dock did not crumble and the bus didn’t in fact roll over the edge. The purpose of the maneuver was apparent since the engine could now be accessed without a lift.
As instructed Annette and I drove our “loaner” into town, a few hundred yards at most and scoured the various stores until we got a call to say the bus was ready. The service manager had himself “helped” his junior mechanic work on our vehicle and warned us that the loose bolt had worn an “oval” hole in the alternator. To repair this the alternator housing would have to be replaced and what we have at present is a temporary fix that should enable us to reach an automotive electrical specialist shop in Albany to the south. The “old” alternator belt, sole survivor of the original pair was left inside the bus for us. I examined it and noted it had deep cracks in a half dozen places, extending more than half way through the rubber. Its life expectancy closer to the two minutes, rather than the six months end of the spectrum.
November 10, 2014
Last week we had a stone smack into the windshield and since then, there has been a crack, growing a couple of inches per day and bisecting our view of the world. We set out this morning for a nine o’clock appointment at O’Brien Glass Repair and with our allowance for rush hour traffic, arrived some twenty minutes early. Two men were already waiting for us at O’Briens and almost as soon as I put the brake on, they began tearing out the old windshield. These guys really looked like they had done this before and in less than an hour, Russell had installed a brand new piece of glass that sparkled better than when the bus left the Toyota plant. It is always instructive to watch skilled craftsmen. Unlike the USA experience, the bulk of the expense was picked up by our Australian insurance coverage and we were soon heading off down the road, willing the bugs to miss us.
Our destination was the Perth Mint, alleged source of Australian bank notes. We drove into the downtown area and found it clean, modern looking and bustling. Parking was an issue as the Perth downtown is business, not tourist oriented but we managed to squeeze into a “car” space, just overhanging a little and paid the meter. As we discovered, the Perth mint does not make the notes, just coins and bullion. The bullion is actively traded at the mint and so security was far more evident than at the Canberra Mint. Our parking meter time was limited, thus we did not linger and returned to our bus to find the wipers free of tickets.
Back on the highway again, we headed east from Perth to the town of York, a pristine little town with hundred and fifty year old, brick buildings lining the high street. We exited the information center and spotted a sign indicating a dump-site for our “cassette toilet” – an occupational habit of caravanners. This was located next to the town park with a sign advertising 24 hours, i.e. overnight parking available. Amazingly, there were unmetered power outlets along the parking area for use by the overnighters. We walked through the town and then headed for the Castle Hotel, established in 1853. The lady at the info center had given us a four page list of the eateries in town and then helpfully mentioned that the Castle was in fact the only one open. The meal there was great, as was the beer and we had but a half block walk back to the bus.
November 9, 2014
Road trip day! Barry and Tania loaded us and the kids into the car for a trip to “the Pinnacles”, within the Nambung National Park, north of Perth. “How much further? I need to go potty! I need a drink of water!” – and that was just us; the kids were good as gold. The Pinnacles are thousands of limestone pillars, rising out of a sea of yellow sand the color of curry powder. The pillars are anything up to 15 feet high and are twisted, jagged and weathered. Some look like Halloween ghosts, some with sharp points and some “rather naughty”, observed Tania. We walked amongst these strange objects, speculating as to their origin. Some seemed to have fossilized worm tubes embedded, some looked like ferns and some with dendritic root structures. Our most popular postulate was that these were formed from a shallow reef system. At the visitor’s center, it was said that there were “conflicting theories” and the most popular was that these were the stumps of fossilized trees from a marsh environment. Rubbish! We have the correct idea - based upon our extensive research spanning over an hour!
From the Pinnacles we headed over to Hansen Beach to devour the wonderful sandwiches Tania had prepared, before the flies found us. We walked the beach and Annette found some kind of stranded sea slug, green and about the size of a small rabbit. She decided to “save it” by hurling it back into the sea but each successive wave dumped it back on the beach, looking a little more disheveled, if a slug can even look disheveled. Finally Tania came to the rescue with a long distance pitch that sufficed at least until we had driven away.
Just down from Hansen Beach was a salt lake containing Stromatolites, defined by Wikipedia as, “layered bio-chemical accretionary structures, formed in shallow water by the trapping, binding and cementation of sedimentary grains by biofilms microbial mats of microorganisms, especially cyanobacteria”. Got it? What we saw looked like giant warts, about a yard in diameter. The lake water is supposed to be one and half times more salty than the sea, thereby dissuading land animals from drinking or grazing here. These particular colonies were estimated to be 3,500 years old, amongst the world’s oldest living organisms. On the walk back along the trail to the car, Annette spotted a blue tongued skink, a chubby, short legged lizard about 18 inches long. It darted into the bush and hid but Annette reached in after it, pushing the scorpions and King Brown snakes aside and pulled it back onto the trail to examine. She then noticed that its ears were covered in bloated ticks; so she proceeded to de-tick it, whilst Jade and Lewis assisted by gleefully smashing the extracted ticks. I made her wash her hands afterwards and gave no sympathy when she itched and dreamt of ticks all night.
November 8, 2014
Our hosts took off for scheduled ice skating lessons this morning and Annette and I took advantage of a slow day to catch up on chores. We first washed the bus, removing most of a thick layer of muck, accumulated over the past 3,000 kilometers. The day was sunny and not too hot and I took the opportunity to borrow Barry’s ladder to check out the bus roof. A minor paint blemish was fixed with Barry doing most of the work and then we headed to a marina / restaurant complex to see if we could get supper for six without a reservation. At the first restaurant we tried, we were told, “no way” and then moments later, the same waiter chased us down as we were leaving, to say they had a table of six, who had made a reservation but failed to show up. What serendipity! One of the few times when having a party of six pays off, as we waltzed past the waiting couples. A pleasant perambulation around the gift shops and boat docks followed. We always enjoy looking at boats and as you know by now, Annette simply hates gift shops.
November 7, 2014
We continued west from the town of Southern Cross and the wheat fields appeared on both sides of the highway, plus occasional termite mounds, the first we have seen since Brisbane.
O’Connor’s pipeline carrying water from Perth to Kalgoorlie was still to be seen, running parallel with the highway. As we approached Perth we saw that the pipe-line is of newer construction, machine welded and of bigger pipe diameter. There were sections with two parallel pipes and we assumed that the long term plan is to gradually replace all of the the 1900 vintage pipe with the larger, modern pipe.
We passed a railway train carrying some kind of ore and in fact passed it more than once, as we stopped for a break and it didn’t. Each time we just made it back in front before the barriers closed at the road crossings and before we had to do the “Dukes of Hazard” bit with a bus. On the outskirts of Perth our GPS hiccupped, (she gets bored occasionally) and took us off the four lane highway we were enjoying, onto a single lane sealed road with no center markings or verges. We humor her when she does this, because we get to see a part of Australia rarely seen by tourists. We passed isolated homesteads and pretty yards with flowering bushes and “muppet like” trees, resembling a sort of a giant yucca plant (Australian Grass Tree – Xanthorrhoea Preissii). I fully expected to see the fourteen camels pulling a wagon-load of of supplies on its way to the Wilson Sheep station but before this occurred, we popped back into civilization, onto a four lane highway with stop lights and signs telling you not to litter and killing people by driving fast is bad.
We were headed to a friends’ home, Tania, Barry, Jade and Lewis, whom we met in Broome last year. As we neared their home on the outskirts of Perth, a dozen or more kangaroos were hopping across an open meadow, just a few hundred yards from their driveway. It was a fun reunion and we parked our bus on their immaculate lawn, just inches from an impeccable rose garden (Tania told us to do it, honest!), while Barry fired up the barbeque. At one point in the evening, we heard in the background, a minor sibling squabble, “Mom, he’s come into my world and he’s shooting arrows at me!” The two children were on opposite sides of the room, each with an iPad, supposedly playing “minecraft”. I think that is truly when I realized, the world has changed and moved on. We are left behind.
November 6, 2014
For several days we had been hearing an occasional squeal from our Coaster bus, usually indicating a slipping engine belt. The main engine access for routine service is under a cover between the two front seats and from here you can only see one belt, a very wide one and it seemed tight enough. I checked the power steering fluid and it was OK too. This morning I decided I would “do the dirty” and slide under the bus to see where the power steering pump is, etc. To my horror, I immediately noticed that the main alternator bolt was unscrewed, protruding about an inch and held in place by friction alone. The alternator was serviced last year and apparently they never bothered to tighten this. I now had to undo the upper bolts, seen only with a mirror and flashlight from below, in order to get enough slack on the alternator belts so that I could coax the main “hinge” bolt back into position. I have now probably over-tightened the alternator and will blow the bearings next week. What a relief that this did not “let go” when crossing the Nullarbor! The vehicle would have been undriveable without that single bolt.
We had booked a tour of the Kalgoorlie “Super Pit”, the largest open pit gold mine in Australia and our Coaster drove to the downtown parking area without so much as a whimper. Kalgoorlie had some 3,000 traditional underground mines in the “golden mile”, dating back 110 years. They extracted the highest concentrations of gold ore but left “haloes” of rock, still containing gold but at lower concentrations. The “Super Pit” mine was begun in 1998 and targets this “left over gold”, producing about 22 tons of gold per year, by moving 15 million tons of rock in the process. I calculate that this is a little over 40 cubic feet of gold; that is a cube, three and a half feet per side.
We met our tour bus and predictably were issued with “day-glo”, high visibility shirts and safety glasses; our safety helmets we would receive when we stepped off the bus at view points. For me, the most spectacular objects on the tour are the 40 dump trucks used, American made by Caterpillar Corporation. They weigh 166 tons empty and carry 240 tons of rock per load. Their 2,300 h.p. engine can drive the truck at up to 35 mph and I would hate to step out in front of a 400 ton loaded vehicle, since the braking distance was not mentioned in the literature. These trucks cost $4.4 million apiece and would be a lot of fun on the freeway.
We drove between moving trucks, past maintenance yards and rock crushing operations to a view point at the edge of the pit. The excavation has reached about two and a half miles long and a mile across. The walls were sloped to reduce the risk of slides and so the base of the pit is about 2,000 feet down. We could look across empty space and see the far pit wall, riddled with the worm holes of previous traditional mines. It was strange to consider the men who had toiled deep underground for long decades, to dig these tunnels that we so casually glanced at. Below we could see the current “working level” with four immense “face shovels” lifting near 70 tons of blasted rock at a scoop and loading it into a waiting dump truck. There were exploratory drills taking core samples as well as shot hole drills preparing the next layer of rock to be blasted with ammonium nitrate charges. The drill core samples are analyzed and the results fed into a three dimensional computer model of the ore body indicating it’s quality. It is this model plus GPS tracking that determines whether a truck load of blasted rock is processed to extract gold or directed to a waste dump.
The original miners had denuded the surrounding countryside of timber for 20 miles in any direction and the subsequent dust storms were historical. This wasteland has now been replanted and water trucks sprayed “bore” water on all of the active roadways in order to keep down dust from the current mining operations. The bore water is reported to be some six times saltier than sea water and tremendously corrosive to machinery. The original miners used timber for posts, props and railroad ties in their mines and of course all had been abandoned below ground as the mines were worked out. The current open pit operation would dig up these abandoned artifacts and the ancient wood and twisted steel rails cannot be fed through the rock crushers and have to be separated from the ore. This must be done by hand and is the apprentice task of the mine, low paid and dangerous work.
Our bus then drove through the various rock crushers and these are multi-stage, reducing the blasted rock to a fine slurry. The slurry is processed in what looks like an oil refinery with a forest of tanks and pipes and a cyanide / electrolysis procedure is applied to extract the gold. An incredibly complex and expensive procedure to produce such a tiny volume of yellow metal having miniscule industrial uses. I am reminded that all of the gold discovered throughout human history, if gathered together, would make a cube of metal, about 65 feet per side.
A really good tour and we felt as though we understood the gold mining process as we headed out of Kalgoorlie, bound for Coolgardie. The rock shop in Coolgardie was a disappointment to Annette and the camel farm too was closed (potential site of petting baby camels), thus we didn’t linger, heading west again to the town of “Southern Cross” for the night. As we drove, we followed the route of O’Connor’s pipeline and noted that almost all pipe sections had the distinctive barred seam indicating that this was the “original” pipe from around 1900.
November 5, 2014
Guy Fawkes Day in Australia, election day in the USA and we head for the Kalgoorlie Mining Museum. The museum is identified by a huge mine head gantry that supported the elevator used to transport both workers and mined rock from nearly a mile underground. This elevator now has less work to do and easily transported Annette and me up to a viewing deck, where we could see the town laid out below and the active mine operations, seemingly all around us. The town was founded in 1893 during the Yilgarn-Goldfields gold rush and the multiple gold mines we see, constitute the richest square mile on earth. There are also nickel mines here plus the extracted gold is contaminated with about 8% “silver”. Bummer! The elevator next took us a level underground to a vault where we saw gold nuggets from various mines, plus jewelry that the successful prospectors had custom produced to celebrate their finds or to honor their current spouse. Professional jewelers followed the successful gold strikes and it is not a stretch to say that their customers were unsophisticated. Big hunks of polished gold predominated.
The museum also had examples of extinct megafauna discovered in nearby caves. There was a sheep sized echidna and a marsupial lion, the latter looking like a huge beaver with very sharp teeth. There were all sorts of displays of period buildings and it was obviously hard living with the heat and lack of water in a goldrush boom town.
Next stop was Mt. Charlotte Lookout. C.Y. O’Connor was the engineer who conceived the plan to build a water pipeline from Perth to Kalgoorlie, a distance of 330 miles (530 kms). The pipeline was commissioned in 1896 and construction completed in 1903. The designer got caught up as a foil in a political campaign, was accused of incompetence and corruption and ridiculed in the local press. Although a later investigation completely cleared him of any corruption charges, 12 months before the pipeline was completed, he committed suicide. A meticulous planner to the end, he rode his horse out into the sea at Perth and then shot himself. A tragic end to a brilliant engineer. Mt. Charlotte is the site of the town water tank and the terminal of the pipeline. Examples of the pipeline construction methods were on display here. Two rectangular sheets of steel were bent into semi-circles and then inserted into an “H” shaped extrusion, sealing the joint between the sheets and thereby eliminating rivets. For the time, this was a daring innovation, since the customary rivets provided both potential leak points as well as disrupting the smooth flow of water. Although O’Connor’s pipeline has been upgraded in the past 110 years, I was impressed to note that over 50% of his original pipe is still in use.
Since it was lunch-time, we next visited the “Shaft Bar” at the Metropole hotel in nearby Boulder, where allegedly miners would pop up out of the ground for a quick beer before descending again to their diggings. The mine shaft is now covered by a plate of glass and you can peer down into the depths as you order your own beer. The bartender explained that the sides of the historic shaft are now collapsing due to shocks and vibration from the frequent nearby blasting operations in the working gold mines. However, the floor of the bar did not fall in whilst we were there.
Our final stop of day was for a tour of one of the last two working brothels in Kalgoorlie. The “madam” met us at the doorway, invited us inside to hear a lecture on the history and operating procedures of the house and then took us on a tour of the various bedrooms. The brothel is still operating as such but is down to a single girl (we didn’t get shown that bit). Back in the early days, the Kalgoorlie local government had moved all working girls to a single street and the local police force had rigidly controlled the trade. This lucrative arrangement had been destroyed by the Western Australia government easing all restrictions about fourteen years ago. Now the brothel faces fierce competition from foreign girls on a six week visitor’s visa, plus internet advertising has changed the whole sex trade. In addition, many of the miners are “fifo” meaning fly in, fly out and are no longer trapped here for years at a time, with only sheep and fellow miners for comfort.
November 4, 2014
We fired up the 'ol Coaster golf cart and drove to the tee, a good choice since it was further than we thought. The tee and green had been located in a beautiful meadow lying in shallow basin, a very pretty location and the silhouettes of kangaroos looked down on us in puzzlement from the ridge above. Probably wondering why we weren't using a four iron. The biting flies weren’t awake yet and we enjoyed the peace and solitude as we beat our golf ball down the 141 meter par 3.
Next was a drive on to Norseman, where we played two holes on a "real" golf course. There was nobody else on the course and the “clubhouse” was tightly locked up, the rubber stamp to validate our course cards sitting on a table on the clubhouse porch. No biting flies here but a swarm of the annoying "mucus" flies made us glad we had remembered our hats with fly nets protecting our faces. From Norseman, we called the pro’s shed in Kalgoorlie and set up a tee time for 3:00 p.m.
At Kambalda, another golf club and again the course was empty but here the clubhouse was full of people eating and drinking. The course itself was similar to Norseman with black, oily, scraped dirt for the “greens”. When we returned to the clubhouse, we were told that today is the Melbourne Cup horserace and we were invited in for drinks. A beer would have gone down nicely about now but the pro's at Kalgoorlie were expecting the US team and we needed to push on.
Our GPS had difficulty locating the golf course at Kalgoorlie but we persisted and finally found the parking lot. Last week the Kalgoorlie Golf Club hosted the Western Australia "Goldfields" PGA Championship and if we had pulled in then, it might have been a little harder for us to get a tee time on an hours notice. We had heard that one player was fined $5,000 for not using a "correct" putter in the competition. For us, this is a non-issue since we don't have a putter.
We dressed nicely and correctly (no denim; shirt with button down collar; shoes not flip-flops), checked in with pro-desk and then returned to the bus for our equipment; two drivers, two wooden "tee" pegs, the cut off base of a 500 ml. plastic water bottle (used as a tee when the ground was too hard or rough for those little wooden pegs) and two golf balls, (the second as back-up in case the first was lost). We had watched the other players hitting 3 kilometer drives like robots, with their shiny golf carts parked nearby and their bulging bags of golf clubs all wearing little wooly hats.
We confidently approached the first tee, in full view of the loungers at the clubhouse and were invited to "go ahead" as this group were waiting on additional players. I explained that we were "not very fast". They said they would wait. I asked if they had flashlights and they laughed, thinking we we were kidding. Annette teed off and we wandered nonchalantly down the slope taking two strokes to get the 100 meters to the ladies tee. Here we found our form and slaughtered this hole in only 8 strokes, Annette sinking a long putt from the edge of the green that bounced off the pole I was holding and into the hole. We high fived and headed for the last hole.
The greens and fairways were immaculate. No rocks, no scrub, no abandoned partially burned out motorhomes, old drill pipe or mixed, industrial detritus. Instead, smooth green hillocks weaved between sand traps to velvet greens. On this hole we were alone, that is out of sight of other players and although we were enjoying the experience, it was taking us much longer to navigate the final hole with the high number of necessary Mulligans. Finally we sank the ball. We are done! What a beautiful course and what a fun experience. We walked back down the fairway a little towards the clubhouse, just as the following group started showing off with their machine accurate, 300 meter drives, when three kangaroos ran into the middle of the fairway and began grazing. They were oblivious to the golf balls dropping around them. So too was Annette trying to get as many pictures as possible. An amazing Australian finish to a really fun adventure.
November 3, 2014
Day three of the tournament and we are on the back nine. We spent last night at the Madura Pass Roadhouse, site of “Brumby’s Run” a par 3, 125 meter hole. Our first task of the day was to play the hole and we almost got a “birdie” - but at the last minute it flew away before the ball clobbered it. The road we had travelled had paralleled sea cliffs and an escarpment but as we left Madura, it finally climbed up the face of the escarpment to the plateau above. The view from the summit looked down upon of a vast, hazy, flat and waterless plain below. Somehow we had expected exposed, wind scoured, white limestone but the rocks are hidden below several feet of soil and a thick layer of bushes. Far more vegetation than we had been led to expect with the name “Nullarbor” meaning “treeless” and perhaps the Aboriginal name meaning “no water” was more accurate.
At the Cocklebiddy Roadhouse, we aced the par 4 hole “Eagle’s Nest” in only 9 strokes and returned to the tee where the bus was parked, searching the edges of the “rough” for any lost balls. We spotted a “skink”, looking like an orange / black / brown pinecone and when he hid under a tuft of grass, we poked him with an ever useful golf club until he emerged to have his picture taken.
The hole at Caiguna was described as “through the trees” and Annette finally sank this hole with a perfect 10 foot putt. In 1841 Edward Eyre, together with John Baxter and three aboriginal men, set out to cross the Nullarbor. When they reached Caiguna, two of the aboriginal “guides” murdered the sleeping Baxter, stole the weaponry plus half the supplies. The remaining aborigine “Wylie” continued travelling with Eyre to Rossiter Bay, both arriving in “poor” condition, where they were rescued by a whaling ship. Nevertheless they become the first people to transit the Nullarbor plain. Our experience of Caiguna was better.
The next hole was at Belladonia and the roadhouse roof is decorated with a piece of Skylab, with additional artifacts displayed in the interior. In 1979 the orbiting laboratory Sky-lab re-entered the earth’s atmosphere and debris rained upon the area around this roadhouse. A local policeman is said to have sent notice of a littering fine to Washington DC but they never paid it. We too had an airborne problem as we played the hole, “Skylab”, a 175 meter par 3. The golfing guide warned us to beware of snakes but the true hazards were biting flies, locally called “March flies” (we would call them “horse flies” in the USA). There was little refinement in our golf drives and we beat off the little beasts that were attacking bare arms and legs with our useless face fly nets while racing to get back to the safety of our bus.
As we headed for the next hole, we noticed a Toyota van at the roadside, people milling about and unloading luggage. We stopped to see if they needed assistance and discovered that the van had just died. There had been a “burning smell”, a little later the engine had stopped abruptly and there was “oil pouring out”. Contradictory symptoms but to compound matters, there was no cell coverage at this location. We picked up Richard, the driver, leaving his parents to camp out at the roadside. Richard is from London, here on a “Working Holiday” visa and his parents were visiting him for a short and adventurous road trip. About 20 kms. down the highway he was able to get cell coverage and contact a towing service. I suggested that he wait at the next point of civilization, where there was both a bar and a phone and have the wrecker pick him up there but the towing service wanted him back at his vehicle in “90 minutes”. Good luck on that! We reversed our course and returned him to his parents, simultaneously restoring his status of incommunicado. We will check the internet to see if desiccated bodies are discovered along a major Australian highway in a couple of weeks time.
We stopped at the Fraser Sheep station, had our golf course card stamped, set our bus up at a campsite and began to walk over to the tee, carrying camera, golf clubs and beer. We never made it to the tee but were driven off by biting flies, within a hundred yards or so. We will try again tomorrow, with more protective clothing and we will do it the “American way”! We will drive the bus to the tee before exposing ourselves to the golfing hazards.
November 2, 2014
The golf tournament continues. It was cold this morning and the wind picked up somewhat causing the contestants to bundle up with extra clothing. This made it a little difficult when we climbed the fence at the rear of the caravan park and crossed the airstrip runway towards the tee. I began my first shot by swinging magnificently and missing the ball completely. This was repeated. I reviewed my Arnold Palmer on-line tutorial and the fourth swing connected; a solid “thwack”, sending the ball up the fairway, across the first bend and into the bush. How do you lose an orange ball that quickly? We searched for some time but the wombats must have eaten it. Fortunately we had five more balls and the ball that Annette had colored up with red “magic marker” was substituted. We finished the hole, “the Dingo’s Den”, a 538 meter par 5 in only 16 more strokes. I took a penalty stroke for losing the ball and Annette surged into the lead with a score of 17 for that hole.
The next hole was 182 kilometers away and our drive was interrupted several times by short side trips to the coast. We could see the Southern Ocean from the highway but until we approached the rim, we did not appreciate the towering, multi-layered cliffs that mark the southern boundary of Australia. The clear blue waters crashed in a welter of white foam at the base of cliffs over 200 feet tall. With the wind blowing strongly I could not help but shudder at what an awful lee shore this would make and we watched the power of huge waves expend their energy, eroding and undercutting the rocks. We searched for whale spouts, knowing that this is the wrong season and similarly searched below for great white sharks or their seal prey. Nothing but wind, waves, blue skies and sunshine. We headed onwards towards “Border Village” and the sixth hole, the tee located tastefully behind a giant fiberglass kangaroo holding a water barrel sized beer can.
The hole was a par 3 and we dispatched it easily in just 9 strokes. We then drove perhaps two hundred yards to the border crossing into Western Australia and our bus was searched for quarantined contraband. We discussed golf tournament strategy with the quarantine officer before setting off again for the “Nullarbur Nymph”, a 315 meter par 4 at Eucla golf course. We were puzzled as to why we had to drive some 15 minutes or so on dirt / gravel roads but all was made clear when we arrived at the former Eucla shooting club, with its weathered and abandoned targets. Here we had a brush-free, broad fairway which we zig-zagged down in only 11 strokes. The hole was named “The Nymph” because in 1971, a couple of kangaroo shooters claimed to have seen a blonde, naked, white woman, living amongst the kangaroos. A grainy photograph was produced and the world media, including a BBC team, descended upon Eucla, with its population of 8. The following year an inebriated kangaroo hunter admitted the hoax but by then, Eucla was on the map!
We sped onwards another 65 Kms to the “Watering Hole” at Mundrabilla, where I lost my second ball of the day. If we can hold to the current wastage we should be able to complete the course but it is worrisome. Annette is now two points ahead of me due to my penalty strokes and she finished the hole with a beautiful 3 foot put.
November 1, 2014
We have gathered pine cones, emptied and flushed the cassette toilet, we are ready for our GOLF!
We messed up at the first course, maybe a quarter mile from the caravan park and wandered around the golf course for thirty minutes, looking for the first tee. As we walked back towards the clubhouse, we saw a lone individual carrying a golf bag. Annette confronted him and asked him where the tee was and he pointed back towards the entrance, to a spot maybe thirty paces behind where we had parked the bus. He made some remark about not having played golf in nine months and strode off to the north, into the wilderness; what for and where he went, we don’t know, because we never saw him again. The locals just call him the “Phantom golfer” and he only shows up in times of dire need...........
OK, now we know where the tee is (that’s the place you start hitting the ball from) and there is a sort of colored map on a post nearby, showing where you might find the flag, that is where you are hitting the ball to. We haven’t actually hit anything yet, so we begin by dumping out the bag of pine cones, gathered from the caravan park this morning. A few practice swings convince us that this might be harder than it looks. A quick conference and a rules revision is proposed, voted upon and unanimously passed. We will play the game according to strict rules of golf (whatever they are) and make up any other rules as needed. To speed the ridiculously slow game up a bit, we will use but one ball, the day-glo orange one that was mixed in with all of the boring white ones. This means that I hit the ball and then Annette hits the ball etcetera and we will keep track of how many strokes it takes to get the ball from tee to hole. If we miss the ball completely we assume that just like in a game of chess, it doesn’t count. Then we use the Clinton / Obama rule that if you hit it and it only rolls a few feet, you get to try again. Using these enhanced rules, we managed to play the first hole, “Oyster Beds”, a 485 meter par 5 in only 16 strokes. Denial Bay came next, a 370 meter par 4 that we sank swiftly in 11 strokes – we are getting the hang of this! Denial Bay even had a water hazard; four agricultural sprayers that were at work mid-way down the “fairway”. We timed them, rather like the “chompers” on “Galaxy Quest” and then ran like hell for the ball. My golf partner might have picked the ball up and thrown it clear but I’m not sure, I was dodging a hosepipe torrent of water at the time.
The next hole was 75 kilometers away at the Penong Roadhouse, so we drove our Toyota Coaster golf cart over there. The drive was through vast wheat fields and we saw no other golfers. This hole was called Windmills, a par 4, 260 meter hole but the drive had made us over-confident and we slipped back to a disappointing 15 stroke hole.
By now you are wondering why it was necessary to empty and flush the cassette toilet before beginning the game and the truth is, it wasn’t. We had these courses pretty much to ourselves. Leaving Penong, we headed to the Nundroo roadhouse, 86 kilometers between holes and the course was marked with warning signs to beware of kangaroos and wombats. We saw no dead kangaroos but we saw several dead wombats, including a recent kill, just beginning to bloat nicely in the sun. The hole at Nundroo is called “Wombat’s Hole” and is a par 5, 520 meter. This presented us a problem in that we couldn’t see the hole from the tee and the mowed area of wheat field ran in a broad swath up a hill, in a direction that did not appear to match the map at the tee. We bashed along on limestone, rocks and wheat stubble until we were part way up the hill and then I set off in a reconnaissance, leaving Annette to guard the ball and thereby locate it upon my return. Bingo! There was a flag in the distance, so unless they have two holes, we are golden. This may be a par 5 but it seemed a long way to us. By the time we got back to the bus we couldn’t remember if it was 14 strokes or 18 strokes, so we compromised on 14 for our scorecards.
It was still fairly early when we again fired up the ‘ol golf cart and set off west again, bound for the Nullarbor roadhouse and the fifth hole, about 148 kilometers away. The wheat fields were gone and the trees beginning to thin out. We passed a section of the dog-proof fence and marveled that it was nowhere identified as such on the highway, although there was an adjacent parking lot so you could pull over and take pictures. The Nullarbor proper begins here and like throwing a switch, the trees were gone. A road sign warned of kangaroos, wombats and camels. We scanned the horizons but no camels to be seen anywhere. By five o’clock we pulled into the road house to get our score cards stamped but were tired and hungry and took a caravan site for the night. We could see the flag for the fifth hole from our bus but it must wait for the morning.
October 31, 2014
Near overflowing with diesel we set out again to the west. The roads straight and the wheat fields unending. The few trees look African, bare branches below with a flattened crown. I kept expecting to see giraffes or at least a pride of lions. To date we haven’t identified them but we will keep trying (Mulgas, Wattles, Acacias?).
For the next three hundred kilometers we were to see no road kill and we postulated that the posted kangaroo crossing warning signs were just to excite the tourists. One Shingleback Lizard we swerved to avoid and we think he made it. We waved at the passing cars, caravans and trucks and they mostly waved back. Those that didn’t will surely share the fate of the Jackdaw of Rheims.
As we entered the town limits of Ceduna, there was a police barricade for an “inspection point”. An officer asked me to blow into a breathalyzer, the first time in my life this has happened. He made no comment regarding the reading and I was not too surprised since in an unusual act, I had chosen to drink fruit juice for lunch today instead of my customary beer. He then asked for my driver’s license and showed his first element of surprise when he said, “Texas”. “Yes”, I replied, “the big one, not the one in Queensland”. What excitement!
We continued a very pleasant drive and we arrived in mid-afternoon at the information center in Ceduna. Our goal here was to sign up for the Nullabor Links, aka “the longest golf course in the world” – 18 holes that begin in Ceduna with the finish 1,365 kilometers later in Kalgoorlie. Since Annette and I are such expert golfers, we bought a couple of used clubs at $10 each and a half dozen balls for $3. Seems like enough. The last two holes in Kalgoorlie require advance reservations and the dress code excludes blue jeans, flip-flops and collarless shirts. We believe we have this covered and we should have practiced for 16 holes before we get there. The fifth hole is a par 5 and players are warned that there is a crow that steals the balls and the eleventh hole includes a warning to beware of snakes. I think that the course is a par 72 and the highest recorded score around 450. This is our target to beat.
We pulled into the Foreshore Caravan Park for the night and the stern of our bus overlooks Murat Bay and the Southern Ocean.
October 30, 2014
We dawdled this morning since the Woomera rocketry museum claims a 10:00 a.m. opening. When we arrived at the museum site, a contingent of Chinese tourists were milling around, looking at the military hardware in the forecourt and it was now near 10:30. Nobody had showed up to open the building and I noticed an obscure sign on a window, perhaps 30 feet from the entrance, warning that the facility was “volunteer operated” and would be closed “until 2014”. The fact that 2014 is ten twelfths gone is a pretty clear indication that we have struck out again.
We continued our drive south spotting a single live emu and one rather shocked lizard, perhaps eighteen inches long, pink head and yellow body. He was attempting to cross the highway and we missed him by inches. It might have been a frilled lizard but at 60 mph, identification is tricky.
We restocked our bus with beer, drinking water and groceries in Port Augusta but after an argument at the drive through bottle shop as to why USA credit cards don’t have PIN numbers, I forgot to refill the fuel tank. The latter was showing just over a half tank of diesel before we set out west towards the Nullarbor plain, passing through dense brush with noticeably taller trees than those of the interior, before the landscape opened up into vast wheat-fields. We stopped for the night at the Kimba roadhouse, with the fuel gauge needle on empty and with a resolve not to repeat this unnecessary excitement.
October 29, 2014
This morning we headed out of town to find “Crocodile Harry’s” place, an underground home that was described as “weird”. Harry’s home was used in the movie “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”, as the lair of the aerial bandit who stole Max’s camel powered vehicle at the start of the movie. We found the place a couple of miles from the pavement and Crocodile Harry was certainly an eccentric. His property was decorated with sculptures constructed from “found objects”, as they are called in the art world. The place was deserted except for two dogs, a huge pit bull type mastiff that never stirred but movement of its chest indicated that it was breathing and a puppy that playfully nipped both Annette and me and drew blood on both occasions. If it had been my dog I would have whacked the crap out of him. Inside the “front door” was a can with a note asking for $5 admission on an honor system. The interior of the home was heavily decorated with personal notes and memorabilia left for Harry. Either he threw a lot of parties or the movie people camped there a long time.
Back in town the store Annette wanted to visit was locked up tight and calling the advertised number just got a recording. We toured the cemetery on the edge of town and noted that many of the graves are simply marked with a wooden cross and a name, no other information and we assumed these to be the graves of unknown opal miners. The most elaborate headstones and gravesites were those of the Serbian community and there was another in particular, that used a beer keg with raised welded inscription plus empty beer bottles and cans decorating the grave. We found Crocodile Harry there too and he has been camped in this underground location for the past eight years. He was 82 years old at his death and obviously a really fun and interesting character.
That afternoon we split Coober Pedy, heading back south and stopped in a rest area near Lake Hart. There was an unmarked trail that seemed to lead to the lake and we locked the bus and headed downhill. Unfortunately we had forgotten about the persistence of outback flies and had neglected to equip ourselves with face nets. The trail we were following led to a railway line and we crossed this in full certainty that this was legal in Australia. From the tracks the trail ran across a soft sand beach and then we were walking on the lake surface upon a hard layer of dried salt. The white lake surface was near blinding in the sunlight but allowed us to see the flies when we connected with one, so if it fell we could with great satisfaction stomp it. Amazingly, two trains passed by the line we had just transited, the first we have seen. We waved at the engine driver and he tooted the horn for us, well worth an extra point in Annette’s “wave” game.
The hike from the lake back to the bus was now uphill in the heat, about a mile in total round trip. Continuously hazed by flies, we debated whether it was our legs or our hands that got the most workout. We approached Woomera in now late afternoon and passed a score of live emus, on, about and crossing the highway. There were ample emu corpses on the pavement to indicate that this is not the safest environment for them. The Woomera campsite hosted us for another night and we vowed to make a second attempt at the museum on the morrow.
October 28, 2014
Our first stop of the day was to visit The Coober Pedy Catholic church, a small and intimate church built underground, as are most homes here with some 60-70 % of the local population living “underground”. The surface rock is sandstone, easy to cut and safely holds quite large spans without props or support beams. Opals were discovered here in 1915, and this was soon followed by an influx of WW 1 soldiers, returning from the trenches of the Western Front and upon arriving in Coober Pedy to mine opal, began to make “dugouts”. These “dugouts” were both cheap and practical with summer temperatures here exceeding 110 F combined with cold winters. The desert environment and deep water table means the “dugouts” remain dry and comfortable year round, without the need of additional heat or air-conditioning.
We wandered around town visiting the stores selling opals and gemstones but near 12 o’clock we arrived at “Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage” to witness the noon feeding of several rescue / rehab kangaroos, plus the feeding of a six month old Joey. Kangaroos may not be the earth’s smartest creatures but in captivity they are docile and the Joey’s are captivating. We are biologically programmed to nurture babies anyway and this Joey was wrapped in towels inside a large diaper bag while being bottle fed. He was then gently ejected from this artificial pouch so that he could practice hopping, just as his mother would have done. When tired he dove head first into a pillow case, leaving his long hind legs sticking out. I might say that Annette wants one but you already knew that.
In early afternoon we were picked up by Ned, a former opal miner, in his Toyota Coaster bus for a four hour tour. It is always eerie to ride as a passenger in the same model vehicle we are driving and I searched carefully for parts I wanted off this one. We drove through the town with Ned providing a running commentary, a mix of history and current practice, passing the water desalination plant, and power generation plant. Power comes from diesel generators and the nearby, single, politically correct windmill, that is alleged to be capable of 4% of the town’s power needs, had it’s blades stilled in mocking salute.
We next toured the mine workings which were signposted everywhere with warnings of abandoned shafts, the entrances undercut by erosion. There are hundreds of thousands of these, as the prospecting method uses both the cheaper eight inch drill holes and holes wide enough for a man to descend to examine the opal bearing deposits directly. These holes were supposed to have been filled, or at least covered when discarded but as individuals, partnerships and companies went broke, they just walked away, even leaving heavy machinery behind. The opal extraction technique is completely different from Lightning Ridge with its “hobby” mines, “lean to” shacks and eccentric miners camping on their claims. This is more industrial scale mining with huge mechanical tunneling machines or open pit excavation. Big expensive machines with huge fuel bills. Ned told us that this mining approach produced huge mounds of excavated material and the machine operators could “miss” up to 30% of the opals. There is a company that is reworking these now abandoned claims and has been for the past eight years. They dig the “waste” and load it into a “rumbler” – basically a type of cement mixer with wire screen instead of the mixing drum. As the drum rotates, loose material is sifted out leaving the larger “stones” – recall the “waste” had already been drilled or blasted from a mine. A conveyor belt then carries these larger stones into a truck mounted cabin with the interior lit by UV light. Any opal present would fluoresce and is easily identified and removed.
When a miner wants to work an area he makes a claim at the government office and may lay claim to two 50 meter by 50 meter blocks. These become his when he “stakes a claim” – that is marks each corner of his claim with a labeled stake, bearing his registration number. When he is done with an area, he must “pull up his stakes” before he can stake another claim. The tailings reprocessing outfit can roam at will over the opal field as long as they are not operating on a “staked claim”, that is literally a claim with stakes present.
Australia produces the bulk of the world’s opal and nearly all Australian production comes from the Coober Pedy area. This is not the only local industry however and we were surprised to learn that more than a dozen movies have been made here in the opal fields. Such movies as “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”, “Mad Max” and “The Red Planet” – in fact, I noticed several scenes from the US Mars Landing program here and am pretty sure I spotted the flag from the Apollo 11 landing, looking a little bleached now from the harsh sun.
Our next destination was the “Breakaways”, a couple of low hills that have broken away from the Stuart Range and provide an amazing vista from an overlook. The desert colors run the entire spectrum from dark chocolate, through cream colored rocks, yellow and ochers. This place has been used in various movies and advertisements and is a popular destination for sunset viewing. The overlook we visited is adjacent to the “dog-proof fence”, whose construction was begun in 1880 and finished in 1885. It has near 6 feet high posts supporting what looks like chicken wire and its purpose is to separate dingoes from the sheep herds. So this is why we hadn’t seen the any sheep up north! They would have been on the dingo side! The fence is still in operation and the biggest maintenance problems are the herds of wild camels up north that are able to push it over. At 3,488 miles in length, the fence is longer than the Great Wall of China, although the latter has proven more effective at suppressing dingoes and is also camel proof.
Returning to Coober Pedy we visited an underground home that had been staged, showing the progression of room to room furnishings from early miner through modern times. When I asked about plumbing issues, Ned pointed out that the first rooms you pass through when entering are usually the bathrooms and kitchen. A large hole is dug for septic and if that fills up, you just drill another one. An interesting day and altogether a great tour.
October 27, 2014
This morning we drove back over to the rocketry museum to discover that it doesn’t open until 10:00 a.m. It was just after 9 so we drove around the town, good for maybe five minutes and then met Steve and Christine from last night, who were also leaving. We stopped and chatted for half an hour and after touring the grocery store - with lots of attention as we were the only customers, it was now past 10:00 a.m. We returned to the museum to find it still closed. We called the phone number listed next to the door and got a recorded message saying they didn’t open until after 8:30 a.m. Oh well, we saw the outside exhibits and saved the $4 entrance fee.
Onwards northbound to Coober Pedy with Annette playing a variant of her “wave at the oncoming vehicles” game. Her final score was 80 returned waves, typically celebrated by a victory dance, plus 48 no-waves, usually accompanied by an “asssshoooole” from the front seat passenger. The victory dance, a sort of muppet hula mix, is limited by the seat belt and depends on the number of people who wave back and their level of enthusiasm. Other statistics were 26 dead ‘roos, 3 dead emus, 6 dead cows and 4 dead sheep. Whoever thought that road trips were boring?
During this time we had passed between Lake Gairdner to the west and Lakes Hart and Hanson to the east. These bodies are dry salt beds but appear with such stark whiteness against the ochers and greens of the bush, they just don’t look real – more like heavy morning mist hiding dark water. In mid afternoon we arrived at our destination of the opal mining town of Coober Pedy. First stop however was the hardware store where I bought a 50 cent “O” ring so that I could install the new sink faucet that we had luckily found in Adelaide. The “old” faucet had been leaking badly and we were anxious to retire it to a dumpster. About an hour after we had moored for the night at a caravan park, we had our new faucet installed and fired up. Then a perambulate into town looking at jewelry stores selling opals before locating the underground restaurant. I should have ordered the lamb chops, which Annette judged as excellent, instead of the shoe leather tough barramundi that I finished up with. Fortunately I was able to make up for the imminent protein deficiency with sticky date pudding and ice cream.
October 26, 2014
We awoke to a cold, grey, rainy day. What a contrast from yesterday! While Annette was repairing her hair in the ladies facilities, I serviced the cassette toilet; that is, I emptied, flushed and reloaded it into it’s bus-side locker. The Coaster was parked across the road from the “Sullage Point” (the place where you dump stuff you don’t wish to sully your hands with) partially blocking passage and forcing the other campers to squeeze past me on their exit. I stepped back, knocked over the bottle of toilet chemical I was using and now have one white sock and one rather damp blue one. Following a brief change of footwear, we set off northbound from Adelaide for Port Augusta. This was a four lane divided highway for the first hour or so, before inevitably deteriorating into a two lane blacktop with occasional “passing lanes”. We drove between broad wheat fields that stretched to the horizon and caught occasional glimpses of the sea as we transited the east side of the Spencer Gulf. At Port Augusta we refueled and then with shopping list in hand, discovered we had forgotten it is Sunday in Australia and everything is closed. We found a small general store that was somehow open and paid a fortune for a few items, sorta like shopping at Quik-Trips. Although it was still raining half-heartedly, it was noticeably warmer when we turned north towards Alice Springs and headed up the Stuart Highway. John Stuart made his sixth attempt to cross the continent from south to north in 1861. His party that comprised 10 men and 71 horses, reportedly made its first camp while still within the city limits of Adelaide, about where we spent last night. As we headed north on the trail blazed through the wilderness by men like Stuart, I could not help but try to imagine what it must have felt like. The landscape is still barren and undeveloped and yet I am seeing it at 60 mph in an air conditioned cocoon. The road ran in a near straight line, mile after mile, with red sand seen briefly between heavy brush. A perfect place to be ambushed by suicidal kangaroos. Then the world opened out into a barren plain before again heading into brush.
We stopped for a break at a roadside parking area with a startling view of “Island Lagoon”. Here in the middle of the wilderness is a small island, seemingly planted in a white inland sea or salt flat. Island Lagoon was the location of a deep space tracking station that NASA established in the 1960’s as part of the Gemini program. Our interest was however distracted by our fellow traveller, Ruby, a girl from Northampton, England (www.rubyrideon.com). She was sitting eating a snack next to a bicycle, the latter loaded for self-contained touring. So as not to scare her, Annette asked her if she needed any water or food. In fact she was near out of water, following an earlier mistake of filling her water bottles with brine from an un-tasted and un-tested bore. Ruby is attempting to cycle solo around the world and had been fighting a vicious headwind since she had left Coober Pedy. We filled her up with drinking water, canned tuna, chicken and a little fruit and sent her on her way. She was a pleasure to chat to, friendly, outgoing and seemingly unaffected by the myriad flies who had joined us. A fellow adventurer.
Our goal for the night was the remote town of Woomera. This is the Australian ”Los Alamos”, the place that in the 60’s was second only to Cape Canaveral for the number of rocket launches. I had heard the exotic name “Woomera” many times as I was growing up in England. The movie Apollo 13 even has a clip where Tom Hanks looks out of his space capsule and sees what looks like sparks in the vacuum of space, passing the capsule window. The next clip shows aborigines sitting around a huge fire, with sparks flying up into the night and the unearthly sound of a didgeridoo to compound the mystery. Such are the images conjured up by the place we are heading for.
The reality of Woomera lacked the active aboriginal corroboree and was more like a deserted overseas airbase, everything laid out at military right angles. The manager of the caravan park had told us that the live weapons testing range, which is huge and occupies near one sixth of the State, is still active and they often hear explosions.
We walked into the town through empty streets, no traffic and no pedestrians, past near identical homes, some with cars parked outside but many looking unoccupied. We passed the community center, hospital, swimming pool and grocery stores, all shuttered and deserted. There was musak playing at both the swimming pool and the grocery store with its empty parking lot, the music accentuating the eerie, empty feeling, even allowing for Sunday afternoon in rural Australia. This reminded me of those cold war movies when you suddenly realize that you are in a test village with homes full of dummies and they are about to explode a nuclear device nearby, just to see the effects on suburbia. There were no nuclear explosions as we walked past the rocketry museum and headed over to only establishment that was open and might feed us.
At the hotel we met Steve and Christine from Keighley, Yorkshire. They had taken a cruise ship from San Francisco to Sydney and had then rented a car for a walkabout across Australia. Steve owns a taxi business in Skipton, Yorkshire and they were a fascinating couple to chat with, married a year longer than Annette and I, and providing us with an insight into the challenges of being self-employed in England. Together we “closed down” the bar and with Steve and Christine staying at the hotel, Annette and I walked back to the caravan park through the darkness, lit by the occasional street lamp and the flickering light of a huge electrical storm nearby. It was perhaps a fifteen minute walk through the town, undisturbed by the crash dummies, sitting in their identical boxes with their plastic, frozen smiles, forever watching their 60’s sitcoms.
October 25, 2014
We left our bus at the campground and headed for downtown Adelaide to see the sights. First challenge was an “on foot” crossing of a major highway with three lanes of high speed traffic in each direction. Remembering to look left, my jay-walking skills, learned as a child in inner-city Birmingham, kicked in and we survived the first obstacle. Naturally we had just missed the bus and had to wait a half hour or so. We spent the time chatting with a grandfather who was taking his one year old grandson for ride on an electric scooter, built for the “mobility impaired”. He wasn’t disabled, he said, just bought the scooter really cheaply. Annette held the baby who promptly went to sleep in her arms, whilst grandfather and I talked about his recent trip to the Philippines where he had bought a vacation home. When he is not vacationing, he cooks and sells doughnuts at the Sunday Adelaide farmers market. Annette returned the sleeping baby to his arms, right before the bus pulled up – just as well as the kid was getting heavy.
The bus ride to the railway station was a tedious affair as there were traffic circles or “safety” chicanes every 50 yards or so, just in case you thought of driving above jogging speed. There was ample evidence of frequent tire contact with the various curbs, indicating that not all drivers were as skillful as ours. The train for downtown was clean, modern and considerably more crowded than the near empty bus. We observed that the week-end travellers had very similar demographics as Toronto, Canada – probably the last time we took a train. These categories were the “young and broke”, students and drop-outs who can’t afford a car; the elderly, who except for us are traveling for free and immigrants from China, Philippines or the Middle East.
The train whisked us to the center of Adelaide where we visited the South Australia museum, war memorial, art museum and “Tandanya”. The latter is an aboriginal art gallery, featuring (amongst others) local aboriginal artist Bluey Roberts who was present in the gallery. Bluey brought up the subject of alien kidnappings and we thus began to compare Australian flying saucers to the ones we keep at Roswell in New Mexico. Unfortunately the aboriginal lady monitoring the gallery began to get upset at the conversation so we had to break off the discussion. It seems that in South Australia as well as New Mexico, you don’t kid around about such serious matters.
In late afternoon we began the reverse procedure to see if we could find our bus again. The bus we had used this morning runs every hour on a Saturday, so you don’t want to miss the connection. We indeed made it back to our camp-site safely and were left with the the thought, that public transportation is fun and everyone should try it every few years - just for the experience and to see where your tax money goes.
October 24, 2014
Today our destination was Adelaide and after leaving Bordertown, we drove on a good, fast highway with light traffic. The only wildlife excitement consisted of single live snake, sunning itself on the roadside. As we neared Adelaide we crossed the coastal “Mount Lotty” range of mountains. A long downhill in low gear with the exhaust brake engaged and the freeway dumped us unceremoniously into downtown Adelaide, with lots of stoplights, roundabouts and near incomprehensible lane changes. This reminded me of travelling through Houston, Texas in the early 70’s, before they hooked the freeways together. Our goal was to visit a consignment broker for the eventual sale of our motorhome. “Camperagent RV Center” offers “real” consignment services and is a family run operation that have been around for years. They seem genuine people and we left with a good feeling. We were directed to a nearby caravan park and although it was early afternoon, we grabbed one of the only two sites left due to the impending Rolling Stone’s concert at the Adelaide Oval.
We have now changed most of our clocks to account for the half hour time difference between Victoria and South Australia. Half an hour! Why bother to change times by half an hour and then change this by a full hour, twice a year for “daylight savings”! When we cross the state border into Western Australia, we will need to move the clocks back by two and a half hours.
October 23, 2014
We continued our drive through rolling green pastures, cutting north from Coleraine through the tiny hamlets of Pigeon Ponds, Harrow, Edenhope and Booroopki. The pastures contained some cattle but lots of sheep. On previous visits to Australia we had marveled at the near total absence of sheep, contradicting years of force fed, elementary school geography lessons. Now we see the answer – they keep them all down here in the south. We crossed into the state of South Australia at the town of Frances, approaching along an empty single lane road that made us wonder if we had somehow missed a turn. Our destination was “Bordertown” (Not “Bartertown” - that was the post apocalyptic community of “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” fame) home of the white kangaroo wildlife park. These animals are not albinos but a genetic strain of the Western Grey kangaroo and they are BIG. We stopped at the park fence while Annette took several thousand photographs through the chain link fence. They had several other species in the park, peacocks and other birds but we have seen these all before. We glanced at them so their feelings wouldn’t be hurt but we had come to see the white kangaroos.
Bordertown is a pretty little town and we stopped at the grocery store to replace our honey plus all the fruits and vegetables we had to dump on the Victoria side of the state line, in order to comply with the agricultural quarantine laws. We had gorged on our blueberries, mangoes and oranges with our lunch and are near bursting with vitamin C. Over at the information center, the lady warned us to avoid Adelaide this week-end, as everything was fully booked in anticipation of the Rolling Stones Concert. Even the concert is fully booked and tickets unavailable unless you know Mick Jagger personally. You cain’t always get what you want.
October 22, 2014
We continued our drive west along the Great Ocean Road. The road was built by returning servicemen from World War One, as it was a determined by the local pols to be a “shovel ready project”. Apparently there was little machinery available and much of the construction really was pick and shovel work. The scenery is truly spectacular, with clear blue ocean turning to white foam as the waves break upon a rocky foreshore. The rocks are then rimmed with a sandy beach, like a necklace on the cliffs of the Victoria land mass. Add to this today’s blue skies and sunshine and it was hard to concentrate on keeping the bus on the twisting and bucking road as it clung to the cliff-side. Unfortunately Annette was beginning to get motion sick, so turned inland at Skenes Creek to head through the Otway Range into the interior of Victoria. Now we were climbing through rainforest, with giant ferns tucked between dizzyingly tall gum trees. The road was sometimes shaded as we climbed a drainage and sometimes with speckled sunshine through the leaves. Steep drops and broad green vistas as we topped the crests. On one bend I simultaneously spotted an echidna walking up the roadside, right next to a place to pull over and park. We had seen one of these creatures yesterday but at the time there was no place to stop. Todays echidna had disappeared into the grass but obligingly wandered back into the road where it was petted and thoroughly photographed from all angles. The total absence of any traffic enabled both the photographer and her subject to survive. On the far side of the range we dropped down towards Colac, the road bordered by broad green pastures. There were now miles of dry stacked stone walls outlining the fields. This type of barrier is labor intensive, slow to construct and therefore quite expensive. They looked just like the walls in northern England built centuries ago. The English walls were supposedly built by POW’s from the Napoleonic Wars, right after the Inclosure Act of 1800. Who built the Australian walls and why? For the past two days we have seen plaques commemorating and referencing the “Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act”. After both WW1 and WW2, attempts were made to settle returned servicemen on grants of land, in order to encourage settlement in the more remote areas. The coast road construction was to improve access to these remote areas. Of course many soldiers had no expertise in farming and so their budding enterprises were abandoned, the project a “mixed success”. Were these ex-soldiers employed in building stone walls? Some references indicate that the fields themselves were rocky, needed to be cleared and so the use of stone for walls was logical, because it was readily available and cheap. But dry stone wall building is a skilled process and these wall have a neatness and “professional” look to them. The other quoted reason is that the walls were an attempt to make a rabbit proof barrier. I find this even less believable and the stone walls of Victoria remain an attractive and interesting puzzle.
We stopped for the night in Hamilton and at the town limits there was a traffic sign warning of bandicoots. Bandicoots? The lady at the information center said she had lived her whole life here and had never seen one, since they are both nocturnal and rare. She showed us a picture - basically a rat with stripes but the girlie bandicoots are alleged to have a pouch. We spent the night at a riverside caravan park and after dark went out with a flashlight to look up in the trees. We soon found a possum who growled at us. Do bandicoots live in trees?
October 21, 2014
Last year we had the bus serviced in Cairns and the mechanic had reported “exhaust system leaks”. We had finally arrived at the point of actually doing something about this and drove over to a specialist exhaust repair shop to have the system inspected and repaired. The mechanic searched underneath the bus for several minutes and then said, “That is nothing. I wouldn’t bother with it – take another look in six months”. OK then, we continued west, skirting Port Phillip Bay, the huge body of protected water that fronts the port of Melbourne and headed back south to the seaside resort town of Torquay, “surfing capital of Australia”. Certainly surfing is big business here and we stopped first at the “Surf Museum”. There were movies of idiots surfing 50 foot waves and what was as impressive as the fact that these fools deliberately put themselves under a moving, towering wall of water, was that they were towed into position by “dudes” riding jet skis and were being photographed from a small helicopter. The helicopter was so close to the surfer that the pilot had to lift each time a wave went by since he was filming from below the crest. Another film clip was an interview with an expert surfer who was describing rescuing a “wipe-out” victim when he noticed they were both being circled by a large shark. Great sport!
Annette searched the museum for her 1964 Hawaiian made board, a present from the creator, her older brother and last used in Talofofo Bay in Guam. She remembers the Guam waves as not as gnarly as the Torquay waves, dude. The museum was fun and we were obviously the most senior attendees.
We continued west along the Great Ocean Road that hugs Australia’s southern sea cliffs. The road twisted and turned, rose and fell steeply and to our left was white sand beaches with blue water. Lots of surfers but no 50 foot waves and no visible shark attacks. We arrived at a near empty caravan park at Kennett River, parked amongst the trees and were immediately surrounded by brightly colored parrots and ducks (plus ducklings). The parrots obviously expected to be fed and perched hopefully on head, shoulder or whatever. The parrots on the bus roof threatened to crap all over the solar panels and so we paid the necessary shakedown with handfuls of the wild bird seed that Annette carries for such emergencies.
Some ten paces from our site was a tree with a large male Koala asleep in the branches, perhaps 15 feet above us. He roused himself eventually, peed and then began making a loud barking and growling sound that we recognized from previous lectures to be the mating call. Sure enough there was another Koala a few trees away. How cool! This was like parking in a zoo!
October 20, 2014
This morning we met Ed’s first cousins Anne and Geraldine and walked the seafront, exploring the gift shops in the hamlet of Mornington. Cousin Una with her husband John joined us for brunch and that afternoon we briefly visited kids and grandkids. It was so exciting to meet the extended families of distant relatives that are distant only in miles.
We chatted with Geraldine’s husband Jerrod and he regaled us with tales of leaving a house and job in Ireland in the 1970’s and traveling to Australia with his wife and five children to start all over to make a new life in Melbourne. In my opinion, few people could give up their security blanket of an established family life to do that. Geraldine had lots of family pictures, including pictures of my father as a young man and Anne brought her family albums to the gathering. We sent out for “take-away” and naturally Annette and I leaned towards the “fish and chips” option, since we don’t get this at home. Another great visit.
October 19, 2014
It was late Sunday morning when we left eastern Melbourne to travel down the southern Mornington Peninsula to avoid the week day traffic. As it was, there was construction and road closings to contend with and at one point, the GPS had us on a gravel road. A cold, grey day with a spattering of rain and at the caravan park, we nested in our bus for the evening, watching movies and eating popcorn.
October 18, 2014
We headed south from Echuca and at a rest stop, remembered to fire up the computer to sign up for a Melbourne toll pass. We had to perform this task for Brisbane, Sydney and now Melbourne. Last year we were burned with a $140 fine for unpaid tolls in Melbourne, after I had been incorrectly assured that the Brisbane account would also include the Melbourne toll roads. Since we intended to return to Australia, I broke with tradition and paid the fine, grumbling as I did so. The authorities use video cameras to scan license plate numbers and this information is used to compute speeding offenses, toll usage and failure to pay for vehicle registration (the registration fee also includes liability vehicle insurance). The speeding is not much of an issue for us, since the Coaster doesn’t go that fast anyway. Just think, in another hundred years, the USA might use the same technology.
We stopped for the night at the home of my (Ed’s) cousin David and wife Kathie and enjoyed catching up with family stories and a fabulous meal at a nearby restaurant. This was one of those “menu fixee” deals where they keep bring courses until you are ready to explode. A great visit.
October 17, 2014
This morning I worked on our travel arrangements to Tasmania. When we tried to book passage on the car ferry boat, the “Spirit of Tasmania”, the internet informed us that they were fully booked throughout October AND November for vehicles over 2.1 meters height. Our bus is over a meter taller than this limit and so for us, this is not going to work. We telephoned the booking office and they confirmed what we had already observed but agreed to add us to a standby wait list in the event of cancellations. Grumpily we abandoned this effort and headed into town to check out the multitude of tourist gift shops and the soothing interior of the Shamrock Pub.
With ready access to both firewood and water, steam engines were commonly used in these parts and as we wandered through the old town section of Echuca, along the banks of the Murray river, perhaps a score of these old engines were on display, some working and some not. It seems like everyone in Australia must have had a rusting chunk of iron in the back paddock. An active and working boiler on the wharf-side provided steam for several engines demonstrating the functions of the lumber mill that had been located here in the 1800’s. Steam winches would drag the logs up the bank from the river, so that they could be cut into usable chunks by huge powered reciprocating saws before steam driven radial saws would produce the various needed sizes of cut lumber.
I was surprised at how quiet the whole operation was and the absence of clouds of polluting smoke. Admittedly the boiler was only running at 20 psi instead of the 100 psi that would probably have been used for real production and the saws weren’t actually cutting the logs. Where I grew up in Birmingham, England, the nearby steam locomotives at the freight marshaling yards were noisy and produced prodigious amounts of dirt in the form of soot and ash. As I compared the two, I realized that whereas the Echuca steam engine was fueled by fairly clean burning wood, the British steam locomotives of my youth were coal burning and the exhaust steam was vented into the chimney stack, thereby increasing the air draw on the firebox and creating the characteristic “puffing” sound of a steam locomotive. This process would near guarantee that they also vented lots of unburned carbon in the form of coal soot plus ash particles, both the bane of women like my mother, desperately trying to dry laundry on a clothes line in the few minutes between British rain showers and before it became dirtier than before it was washed.
We had booked a river trip on the P.S. Pevensey, a vessel built as a barge in 1910 and then converted to a side paddle steamer in 1911 at nearby Moama. She weighed in at 130 tons, length of 112 feet with a 32 foot beam. The 20 h.p. wood burning engine could propel her at 8 knots and her draft of two and a half feet ensured she could transit much of the Murray river system. We saw several other steam powered paddle wheelers on the river but most were of recent manufacture, some with modern engines but some using restored and antique steam engines. The Pevensey is one of only two authentic vessels still extant.
I was interested to see how she was turned in the river and watched as the master skillfully rang in the engine changes, turned the big spoked wheel and let river current do the rest. The side paddle wheels aren’t independently operated as I had imagined but turn on a single shaft. The paddle boat moved surprisingly swiftly and silently up and down the river and at 6 times heavier than our S/V DoodleBug with its 85 H.P. turbocharged diesel, has a similar top speed thanks to the low flat hull shape.
This was a very enjoyable way to travel and Annette and I sat on fake cotton bales on the bow, sipping cold beers and were quite ready to continue down the 1800 or so kilometers to the mouth of the Murray in Adelaide. Unfortunately our one hour passage was over and we were dumped back on the wharf where we met Brian Carter, a self styled “troubadour, spruiker, poet, bard, singer and juggler”. What attracted Annette’s attention was that he performed on demand, Kookaburra imitations, both the morning version and the more common territorial warning. Annette has been practicing her call and was an apt pupil for any hints from a master. I have tried but I can’t even come close. My efforts are more Orangutan than bird.
October 16, 2014
Blue skies and sunshine this morning as we continued our drive south on the Cobb highway, keeping an eye open for emus on the empty plains on either side of the road. We were rewarded with four sightings of a dozen or so birds and one that was close enough to the road, that Annette was able to get photographs.
The route along the Cobb highway followed portions of a stock route called the “Long Paddock” that was established around 1840. We stopped at the “Black Swamp” to view a roadside sculpture of the headless horseman. The “Black Swamp” was a watering hole for stock and a local butcher is said to have terrified the passing drovers by wearing a cloak and frame on his shoulders to appear that he was a headless man riding a horse. He would scare both cattle and drovers so that he could make off with a few. He supposedly was smart enough to limit his thefts to a lowish number so as not to attract law enforcement. The sculpture by Geoff Hocking depicts the resulting cattle stampede and fleeing drovers pursued by the headless specter.
The weather stayed fine as we passed through through the towns of Deniliquin and Moama, before crossing the Murray River into the State of Victoria and stopping for the night at Echuca. In 1853 Echuca was the largest inland port in Australia and the wharf brought a steady stream of steamships, carrying goods to be transferred by rail to the port of Melbourne. Several of these steamships have survived and we booked a passage for tomorrow on a side paddle steamship, the P.S. Pevensey, for a tour of the Murray river.
We are staying for the night at a riverside caravan park, close enough to walk into town and we walked along the bank of the Murray towards the old wharf. There were many house boats moored "stern to" the bank, as well as a couple of steamboats tied up. I noticed that the steamboat's smokestacks had heat and fumes rising and I asked a deckhand what kind of fuel was being used for the boilers. She indicate a pile of cut logs on the bank and noted that these ships are of the few that are authentic wood burners (just like the African Queen!) - not propane as I would have assumed.
It has been cold for the past few nights and Annette's day was truly made when for $8, she found a thick hooded dressing gown in the clearance rack at at "Big W" - sort of Australia's equivalent of Wal-mart. She will be a warm and happy camper tonight.
October 15, 2014
When we had arrived at the park last night, I had asked the proprietor if we could get the bus serviced in town. He promptly called the local Toyota dealer and they agreed to fit us in for an oil change at 4:00 p.m. tomorrow. Great! I had been dreading the usual, “Might fit you in next May” response. Since we were now staying two nights in Hay, we had a slow start to the day and then headed out to buy a computer mouse, mine having conveniently died a month out of warranty. While I tested the new mouse, Annette stocked up on groceries and then we headed over to the Shear Heritage Museum.
This place was a great stop and brought home to us the importance of wool in Australia’s past. The original settlers in 1788 brought sheep with them but within twelve months, all but one had been eaten by the hungry convicts and guards. In 1796 the Governor had sent a ship to Cape Town to buy cattle and the expedition returned with 26 sheep of Spanish Merino descent. From this beginning the huge Australian herds were derived, with the number of animals peaking in the 1970’s. Then followed the collapse of wool prices due to reduced world demand plus competition from cotton and synthetic fibers. The problem was that wool was three times the price of these alternatives and although wool was still preferred for high quality fabrics, the new technology synthetics were having a huge impact on textile production. The Australian government tried to prop up the wool price by buying the surplus production but eventually this became too expensive. Australian output dropped by 35% in the 1990’s and only stabilized somewhat when the Australian producers began to concentrate upon the finest merino wool.
The work of the shearer was much more physical than I had ever realized. They were (and are) traditionally paid per sheep shorn and it takes 2 to 3 minutes per animal. Before power shears were introduced, the men used “blades”, basically spring based scissors and so the effort to operate these required huge physical effort. The men worked in four two hour stints per day; a 30 minute "smoko" break in the morning, during which they would have followed their huge breakfast with tea and sandwiches; the next two hours session was followed by an hour break for lunch and an afternoon 30 minute break would include more snacks. While they were working, their heart rate would be steady at around 155 beats per minute and their calorie intake around 8,000 calories per day – very similar to Tour de France cycling competitors. Champion shearer Jackie Howe sheared 321 sheep in 7 hours 40 minutes in 1892 using hand shears. He is reported to have had hands like "small tennis rackets" and his biceps were so large, he supposedly cut the sleeves from his shirt in order to remove the constriction. The sleeveless shirts, since known as "Jackie Howe's" in Australia (and called "wife beaters" in the USA) are a de rigueur vestment for todays shearers. Howe was a trades unionist and active during the shearer strikes of 1891 and 1894 and of course we will remember that the song "Waltzing Matilda" concerned events at an 1894 shearer's strike at Dagworth station, Queensland.
It was an education to see and realize how many people were employed in a shearing operation, from the cooks who fed the workers to the "experts" who repaired and maintained powered equipment and cutting tools; then there were all of the workers to clean up the cut wool, sort and grade the wool as to quality, before it was packed and compressed into bales for shipment. We watched a live demonstration of a sheep being shorn in about 2 1/2 minutes (using power shears) and it was as well that the shearer was so swift, as we had our 4:00 pm appointment to get our Coaster oil change and we needed to scurry.
October 14, 2014
Early start for us. By 8:30 a.m. we were rolling, heading for “mother’s” mailbox to drop off our key and hopefully collect our deposit. Sure enough, we found the driveway marked by two stone lions and the mailbox containing an envelope enclosing our $10 refund. Our destination this morning was the Casella winery in Yenda and we followed the signs for “Staff Entrance”, parked and pressed a red button next to an impressive turnstile entrance. A disembodied voice enquired as to our business and apparently the security cameras were satisfied, as a loud click enabled the turnstile security gate to operate and we were admitted. It was still cold and rainy and we filled out a form with our details, so that we could be outfitted with security badges, day-glo safety vests, helmets and safety glasses. By this time our guide “Les”, the plant Public Relations, Education and Training manager had arrived to tour us through the sprawling facility. The winery is the largest family owned operation in Australia, exports more than 12 and 1/2 million cases of wine per year to 50 plus different countries, accounting for a third of Australia’s wine exports. They process almost 10 percent of Australia’s grape crush in this facility, seemingly in the “middle of nowhere” (each kilo of grapes produces a 750 ml. bottle of wine). For the next two hours Les took us on a bewildering tour through warehouses, fermentation vats, bottling plants, laboratories, packaging, shipping and crating operations. Although the period of grape harvest and wine-making is only for three months per year, the storage of product, packaging and distribution is a year around process. Some of the rooms we visited required us to sterilize hands and cover jewelry and hair with sterile surgical type caps before we entered. Les was a fountain of knowledge and we remain so very grateful that he took the time to take us on this memorable and amazing tour. We will likely never in conscience be able to drink anything other than Yellowtail wine ever again. The Casella family came to Queensland in 1957 from Sicily and worked as seasonal workers in the cane fields. In 1962 they moved to New South Wales and three years later purchased a small mixed horticultural farm in Yenda. Today the original family farmhouse stands in the middle of this industrial scale complex, dwarfed by million lire storage tanks as though in the middle of an oil refinery. An amazing story of business success.
As we drove south, the rain came down harder with a strong cross-wind tugging at the steering. At one intersection there was a barricade with police cars and we were waved off on a long diversion due to a traffic fatality that morning. The farm roads were almost empty but along the mowed verges were clusters of parrots, feeding upon grass seeds. Occasionally we would see the flash of iridescent green as they took to flight but mostly there were groups of a dozen or so pink, grey and white Galahs. These would launch airborne like a cloud of chrysanthemums but the magpies however, showed their equanimity by just walking a little closer to the road’s edge as though disdaining physical effort. Finally the bank of dark clouds were behind us, the windshield clean and unspotted with water droplets and the blue skies of a “screen-saver” sky ahead. We turned off the cab heater just before we stopped for the night at a caravan park on the outskirts of Hay, NSW.
October 13, 2014
Monday morning in Australia and Annette calls the Casella winery in Yenda, New South Wales to see if they do tours. Casella’s brand is “Yellow Tail” wines, found all over the USA and Yenda is a tiny hamlet lying at the southern end of the Lachlan Range in the middle of the State. The red lines indicating major highways thin out on this part of the road map. Annette spoke to Les Worland, who checked his schedule and set an appointment for the morrow. We left Canberra northwards on the Barton Highway towards Yass on a cold morning with overcast skies and rain showers. Beyond Yass, we left the motorways and drove northwest towards Harden along empty two-lane farm roads. We were now grateful that we had taken the time to repair the cab heater.
Afternoon found us in the delightful village of Ardlethan where we stopped at the tiny IGA grocery store. Ardlethan is the “home of the Australian Kelpie”, a working dog, famous for its prowess in herding cattle, sheep and goats. There was a plaque and bronze statue extolling the virtues of the Kelpie both as a working animal and as a pet, plus a warning that bored and idle Kelpies are famous for amusing themselves, in manners that their owners might not find so entertaining. There were other places we could have camped that were closer to our destination but Ardlethan was the only location that promised powered sites and we wanted to run our cabin heater for the anticipated cold night. Across from the IGA was “free” overnight camping, adjacent to the local bowling club which even offered four metered power outlets at the rate of $2 for 12 hours power. Unfortunately this great deal had already been taken by four fellow travellers. The next option was an in-town caravan park and our iPad based guide indicated that we should “pay and get the key” from the IGA. The IGA sent us next door to a “sundries” store selling local crafts, knitted goods, jewelry, crockery and the like and the proprietor said that her mother was now operating the caravan park. We paid her $20, $10 for the overnight plus a $10 deposit for the key to the toilet / showers / laundry. Since we were leaving relatively early in the morning, we would drop off the key at “mother’s” mailbox and she would similarly leave the $10 refund in the mailbox. This is so charming and a reminder of country values. The other occupants of the campsite were extended members of a large family, attending a reunion / birthday party a 100 attending the dinner and 300 attending the reception. They had travelled from all over Australia and New Zealand and although we chatted for a while, the cold soon drove every into their respective campers.
October 12, 2014
This morning we roused ourselves from our calorie induced torpor and set off to go sightseeing. Our first stop however was a level piece of empty parking lot where I swapped the “spare” tire on the front axle for the tire I had repaired a couple of days ago. This is the fifth time I have removed a wheel from the bus and now have the procedure down to around thirty minutes. Another six months of this and we will be ready for the pits at the Indy 500.
Our next destination was the Royal Australian Mint where Australia’s coinage is produced. They use German manufactured machines to strike the coins and these are fed and served by robots. The men who watch the robots weren’t working on a Sunday so the machines sat idle, surrounded by mountains of coin blanks and finished product. The building security seemed very light and I was reminded that the UK ships their coins to the various banks as rail freight and without any security whatsoever. The mint had exhibit examples of coin mis-strikes, made during the manufacturing process plus coin forgeries. I was puzzled as to why anyone would bother to forge a coin, considering the effort it would likely take. Then I saw the examples of forged 1930 pennies. Only about 1500 were actually minted because this was during the Depression and the coins were not distributed that year. Apparently someone decided to hand them out about a decade later. It is thought that perhaps they were exchanged with tourist’s coins during mint tours in the 1940’s. Nevertheless, they are extremely rare and we saw examples where forgers had glued a zero onto, say a 1936 penny, after grinding off the “6”. Other attempts had been to change the “8” to a “0” on a 1938 penny. Interesting place.
Annette had picked up a brochure for an Aboriginal Art Gallery on the north side of Canberra and we next drove out to take a look. The gallery was fairly small although the owner indicated that they carried more than a 1,000 pictures of Aboriginal art on their web-site – available for viewing “in the flesh” by appointment. They did have a painting hanging in the gallery by an artist (Ningura Napurrula) that Annette has already collected but the asking price was unattractive. They also had a decorated “burial log” that she has been lusting after but the proprietor indicated that they would not provide assistance with shipping, so we moved on.
We parked at the Australian War memorial and immediately heard the sound of bagpipes and drumming. Scattered across the grounds of the memorial, usually in the shade of one of the beautiful mature trees, was a man sitting at a portable table and nearby a solitary piper or solitary drummer. What we were watching was a solo performance competition for pipe or drum, for the Canberra Caledonian Society band members. Just about everyone was wearing a kilt and sporran – even the police officer on duty. I pointed out to Annette the near mandatory dirk tucked into the the right sock. When Annette asked a group of pipers if she could take their picture, I was amused when one of the pipers restored himself to full highland dress, by swapping the more practical Australian stockman’s hat he was wearing for a Tam O’ Shanter. The pipers were amazing and I could but think of when Alan Breck Stewart challenged Robin MacGregor to a battle of the pipes, rather than settle their quarrel with swords – OK, so it was fictional – “Kidnapped” by Robert Louis Stephenson but a great story.
There was a 17 year old girl (according to her grandfather we were chatting to at the time) who played a solo drum with the most amazing “flourishes” of the drumsticks. This is baton twirling on steroids but when you come down and bash the drum with the stick, you actually have to hit it in time with the rest of the music. Tricky.
Inside the memorial is a museum with all sorts of aircraft, guns, uniforms and weapons on display, covering the various conflicts that Australia has participated in from the Boer War, then nationhood and the blooding at Gallipoli in the First World War, before the slaughter of the Western Front; The desert war in North Africa and the amphibious jungle wars against the Japanese in the Second World War; Korea, Vietnam, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan in modern times. We had visited this museum and shrine before in 2006 but it remains a humbling reminder of the sacrifices that Australia has made in such a short period of history, on behalf of freedom and at what a cost.
It was now getting late and we headed towards the Exhibition Grounds and our campsite, looking out for a restaurant. There were busy shopping centers, likely crawling with restaurants but with multi-story car parks and nowhere we could fit a bus. As we left the downtown area we spotted an establishment promising “Turkish Pizza”. We parked in front, ordered our pizza from the Asian cook and walked next door to buy beer. We then sat drinking beer at a sidewalk table and the Asian Turkish cook brought out our pizza. I had ordered lamb pizza and it was very tasty. More of a “Calzone” than a pizza but excellent nonetheless. As we sat eating our supper, there was a group in the park opposite skipping ropes for exercise and several bicyclists rode past wearing helmets of course but with what looked like electrical nylon “zip” ties sticking out of the top of their helmets. We had similarly seen motorcycle riders with such appendages and had speculated as to what their conceivable purpose might be. Annette returned to the liquor store to ask and was told that they are used to dissuade magpie attacks. Before you laugh, we have been warned about magpie attacks in several parks and have even seen warning signs. Hitchcock, you were right!
October 11, 2014
Laundry day! It was more of a catch up on everything day and we “hung” at the Exhibition Park Campgrounds, reading, chatting to people, catching up on e-mails and the like. Last evening’s supper was grilled lamb chops, grilled marinated potatoes, grilled chipati (flat bread) plus Bok Choy salad with Ranch dressing. This however was just the warm up and today the fare escalated to grilled bacon wrapped shrimp, cashew pilaf, grilled zucchini, grilled pineapple and iceberg lettuce salad with tangerine segments in a dressing of balsamic vinegar and basil infused olive oil plus tangerine “zest” (that’s little bits of chopped up tangerine rind for the ignorant - like me). Yes, camping involves so many hardships.....
October 10, 2014
We visited the “Sydney RV Group” since they advertise themselves on the internet as “consignment brokers” and we had successfully sold our USA based motorhome through consignment broker PPL Motorhomes in Houston, Texas. We are not ready to sell yet but wanted to avoid surprises when we do come to sell our bus. The Sydney RV Group people were very friendly and helpful but it soon became apparent that “consignment broker” means something completely different in Australia. In the USA, you agree with the broker on a commission rate and thus the broker is incentivized to sell your vehicle for the maximum price possible - which is good for both parties. In Australia, you agree to a price with the broker, which is the price you "might" receive. If the broker sells the vehicle way above this price, he keeps the difference. If forced to take a lower price, the broker returns to the seller and they agree to lower the price the seller will receive, so that there is “sufficient” profit for the broker. It is like selling your car to a used car salesman but you don’t get paid until he resells your car and if he doesn’t get enough margin, he can come back to you and lowers your take. What a sweet deal for the broker! No inventory costs, no downside risk. Of course this is true of USA consignment brokers but in the latter case, the good fortune of a high sale price is shared between the parties.
Somewhat despondent, we left Sydney with its traffic and drove to Australia’s capital city of Canberra, camping at the spacious Exhibition Park campground.
October 9, 2014
We camped the night in Gloucester, adjacent to the Gloucester River and set off south again in the morning, along the “Thunderbolt’s Way” highway, to the coastal town of Newcastle. The highway was named for a local bushranger, Captain Thunderbolt. Captain Thunderbolt was a famous criminal who escaped from a work gang at Cockatoo Bay. I suppose that the USA has celebrated criminals such as Al Capone, Jesse James and Billy the Kid but we usually only name highways after successful criminals that have served in Congress.
We now seemed to enter a different Australia. Gone were the signs advertising brick throwing contests, the sleepy towns surrounded by fields that reminded us of Wales but without the stone walls. Now we were back in the realm of heavy traffic and urban sprawl. We wanted to visit a Sydney based RV consignment broker on Friday morning and headed for a nearby caravan park in the Sydney suburb of Emu Plains. However the park was renovating their power system and had no sites available for us to stay. Instead they kindly called around and found us a spot at Avina Village in the suburb of Vineyard, some 40 kms. back to the northeast where we had just driven from. The Avina Village campsite remains memorable in that it is the only place we have seen live “wild” bunnies on this trip.
October 8, 2014
This morning we visited “Manuel” the goat, the famous tire eater. Since our 2013 visit he has been relocated to the far end of the park to reduce the impact of his vehicle chewing habits. He had also had his horns trimmed, and owner Brigitte related the tale that when he was loaded into the back of the vet’s “ute” (pickup-truck), she realized that he had never been away from “home” before. He let out a single plaintiff “Maaa” as the truck drove off and she burst into tears. Sorta like the first time your kindergartner leaves on the school bus.
Our drive continued south through the towns of Armidale and Walcha towards Gloucester. A beautiful drive on near empty highways, between mountains, and blazing green pastures fed by spring rains.
October 7, 2014
First thing on the schedule after leaving the campsite this morning was to drive over to the local tire repair. The mechanic was obviously busy and made muttering noises about previous work commitments but I nevertheless unloaded the wheel from its stowage under the bus and rolled it to the door of his business. He continued to roll the wheel into the depths of his workshop and reappeared some twenty minutes later showing me that the inner tube had split along a seam. He had replaced the tube with a new one but because he was “rushed”, I didn’t ask him to remount the tire on the front and instead, stowed the now repaired tire back under bus. I do want to run my newest tire on a front wheel and will need to find the combination of level, hard ground for the jack, plus willing mechanic / operator.
(Note: "split rims" used to be common on heavy vehicles that might be used "in the bush". The split rim had some mechanism, circlip or whatever, so that the rim could be separated safely from the wheel as long as the tire was deflated. You could then slide the tire off the wheel without special tools and repair a "flat" by either patching or replacing an inner tube - just like a bicycle tire. Thus our Coaster uses tubes inside the tires. I am told that "for safety reasons", the modern buses uses tubeless tires like modern autos)
We wanted to continue driving south on the Dividing Range but our proposed route through Baryulgil and Barretts Creek lay along unpaved roads. We have just paid to have the paint on the front of the bus restored from the ravages of stone chips and saw no point in repeating the procedure. Instead, we cut through on a minor road, little more than single lane width blacktop, to the tiny village of Tabulam, before heading west to Tenterfield and then south to Glen Innes. The mountain roads were near empty of traffic, winding with steep inclines followed by equally steep descents. We growled down these slopes in low gear with the diesel exhaust brake snarling. During our previous Australian visits I had remarked upon the near total absence of sheep. Now the passing fields were bursting with the creatures, if fields can burst that is. The spring lambs were gamboling and brought instant thoughts of mint sauce. The signs at the driveways to the various farms claimed Merino sheep; just wool then, no mint sauce?
That afternoon we passed through Glen Innes and pulled into the “Glen Rest” caravan park where we had stayed in March, 2013.
October 6, 2014
This morning marks the first time we have seen “live” kangaroos in Australia! A mother plus her “Joey” grazing on the opposite side of the road from our parked bus. Today is a national holiday throughout Australia and a “down” day for us. By 9:00 a.m. we were the only inhabitants of the caravan park other than the magpies, parrots, doves and the like. If the large black snake returned, we didn’t see him.
October 5, 2014
Since we no longer need the Tuesday service appointment, we pointed our bus to the south in the sparse traffic of a Brisbane Sunday morning, only this time, our route lay along the Lindesay Highway to Woodenbong in New South Wales and from thence to Bonalbo. We camped beside the river, amongst tall trees and birdsong. In the river below there was a turtle sunning itself on a log and a pair of large lizards doing whatever it is lizards do in springtime. A couple who had been camping nearby had stopped to chat when a four foot long black snake with red underside, slid by us some six feet away. The Australians jumped backwards with alacrity exclaiming that this was one of the deadliest snakes on the continent. They must have been city folks though, because our snake guide book states that there have been no known fatalities in adults from this specie. Nevertheless we were suitably impressed when we saw just how fast that sucker moved through the undergrowth when alarmed.
Annette planned to BBQ this evening and as I hauled the grill out from our stern locker, I was discomfited to see that our front left tire was near flat. I dragged out the 12 volt air compressor and plugged it in. After the tire was perhaps 80 percent re-inflated, the compressor quit and in the ensuing silence, I could hear air hissing from a leak. Not the valve stem - I was going to have to change this for the spare. The location for a jack was poor, hard dirt on a slight slope but it worked, we didn’t drop the bus off the jack and managed to get the spare tire installed. The air compressor did not reset itself after a temperature overload as I had hoped and a meter showed that the fuse in the 12 volt “cigarette” type plug had burned out. We have no replacement fuse but the spare tire itself has enough air in it to be drivable. Meanwhile, Annette had lost none of her cooking skills and our supper was grilled steak, green beans, marinated and grilled aubergine plus a huge Australian avocado. The adventure continues.
October 4, 2014
There seemed two possibilities concerning the recalcitrant heater. The first was that somehow there was too much air in the unused heater hoses, heater core and the like and there was some kind of air-lock. I topped up the radiator reservoir overflow in the hope that this might “bleed out” in the act of driving. The second option was that the repair shop had forgotten to connect the cable that operated the on / off valve. This would not be pretty but I determined to see if I could access this after we stopped for the evening.
To this end we bade Robert farewell and headed back along the highway towards Brisbane. After ten minutes or so, hot air was coming from the heater outlets, it was working! We exited the freeway and pulled into the parking lot of a large shopping mall in order to regroup. A check of the engine compartment and no coolant leaks - victory! Now we don’t have to hang around Brisbane until Tuesday.
It was still way too early for shopping and Annette fixed bacon, eggs and toast at our parking lot campsite as we waited for the mall to open. There was a movie theatre in the mall and after shopping for a few grocery items, we bought movie tickets for the 10:00 a.m. showing of “The Maze Runner” a similar theme as “The Hunger Games”, perhaps appealing more to teenagers or to the kind of people who watch movies at 10:00 a.m.
During Annette’s various shopping expeditions she had found gifts for Jodi’s family and now wanted the chance to deliver them, thus we fired up the bus and headed back to the north to Jodi and Ray’s place, camping out again in their driveway. As before, Ray overwhelmed us with the food he cooked on his backyard BBQ. He is a fine BBQ chef but by the time we had finished off the second round of appetizers, we were replete and there was no hope of cramming in dinner, at least not without resorting to Roman methods involving chicken feathers.
October 3, 2014
Last night was cold and since we were free camping in the pub parking lot, we had no electricity to run our heater. Breakfast consisted of several cups of coffee and tea and we decided to just hit the road early so that we could run our newly repaired in-cab heater. It didn’t work! Cold air poured through the floor vents as we drove. Eventually the temperature gauge had moved up to its normal position and so our hope evaporated. We pulled into a highway rest area and I removed the engine cover. This is inside the bus, between the front seats and the engine heat warmed the bus even though it was a little smelly. I gazed in horror at the heater hoses that were capped and not hooked up to the engine. I pulled the invoice from the dealership. The invoice read, “road tested, all OK”. Bullshit! It was still too early to call the dealership but we reversed direction in the hope that they might fix the problem on the spot. We were three hours drive from Brisbane and after an hour, we pulled over to call. The sales rep assured us that their first opening for service was a week from today. The manager was on holiday and there was no “Assistant Manager”. We asked to speak to the representative we had been dealing with but she was unavailable for another hour but would call us. Two hours later, we called again and were given the message that they would fit us in, first thing on Tuesday morning since Monday is a holiday in Queensland. By now we were back on the outskirts of Ipswich and we found a large auto-parts store. I bought hose clamps and anti-freeze and then tried to work out the heater hose combination. The bus originally had two heaters but the rear heater for the passenger compartment had been removed during conversion to a motor-home. There were three hose outlets from the engine. Each heater used two. Two outlets would work if the heaters were in series or four if not - but three? After an hour of puzzling through internet diagrams and crawling under the bus in the parts store parking lot, I found a “T” junction on the return pipes. Mystery solved!
While we had been occupying the parking spaces in the parts store parking lot, a couple had approached us to admire the Coaster bus. When I told “Robert” our plans, he invited us to park on his property where he could provide power and a water hook-up. The clincher was that he told Annette that he had “baby horses” on his three acres. Sold! Our GPS found its way to his property and while Annette explored the horse situation, I worked on reconnecting the heater hoses to the engine. This took me two hours of struggling as I hoped to retain most of my skin while struggling at odd angles to remove rubber hoses that had become welded to their various pipes. Finally it was done and I fired up the engine. The good news was that the system did not leak. The bad news was that the heater still did not work. Bugger! In times like this you do the obvious thing. Take a shower, drink a pre-dinner beer and then we headed out with Robert in his car to a nearby restaurant. Robert had served in the Vietnam War as a member of Australia’s 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, attached to the US 173rd. Airborne Division. He had recently returned from a reunion held in San Antonio, Texas, just north of our place on Padre Island. He was a charming host and fun companion.
Annette reports that Robert had purchased his two Shetland ponies to keep grass down on his property and thereby limit the number of snakes.
October 2, 2014
We left the Glass House Mountains campsite this morning and headed north towards Beerwah, skirting the peaks of the mountain range, before heading west towards Kilcoy. Banks of mist lay in the folds in the ground and the low cloud layer provided a subdued light as we glimpsed the individual peaks of the Glass House Mountains. Just beyond Kilcoy, we turned south towards the Somerset Dam with vistas of Lake Somerset on our port side. Once past the dam, the road switched sides of the valley and Lake Wivenhoe lay to starboard. A very pretty drive.
Our destination was the town of Ipswich where Brian, a local taxidermist, had promised Annette some Red Kangaroo skins. Brian’s house was on stilts and he had converted the entire area below into a workshop. He had a wild boar’s head that he had just completed mounting, plus several heads of African game that were under construction. Brian explained that Red Kangaroos were protected by government law but that he owned a recreational permit to shoot some number. He was not allowed to sell the skins, so he simply gave them to Annette. What a kind gesture! He was looking for a “good home” for his skins and Annette promised just that.
Leaving Ipswich, we headed south, crossing Australia’s Great Dividing Range through Cunningham’s Gap. Our goal was to reach the Old Maryvale Hotel for the night. This pub was built by an American survivor of the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. When he arrived in Maryvale he decided that the geology was similar to San Francisco so he built the hotel with a steel frame in order that it would be earthquake proof. The current owners are in the process of renovating this building and showed us the exposed steel beams and framing. We are not yet adjusted to this time zone so we had a couple of drinks in the bar, ordered our dinners for 1800 hours and took a nap in our bus, parked behind the hotel. In good time our alarm woke us so that we could stagger back to the pub for an excellent dinner of macadamia nut crusted barramundi. The landlord showed us the various treasures he had collected over the years and we admired his “moonstone”, one of the largest we had seen. He disappeared into the bowels of the pub and reappeared a few minutes later to give Annette a cut and polished half of a smaller moonstone.
October 1, 2014
Jodi and Ray are fantastic hosts and we reluctantly bade them farewell this morning and set off on the second stage of our walk-about. The Glass House mountains lie about an hour’s drive north of Brisbane and were so named by Captain Cook in 1770. I’m not sure how he spotted them from the coast but they reminded him of glass production in Yorkshire – presumably “slag heaps”. They are vertical volcanic plugs of hardened lava that stick up through the softer eroded material.
This is a beautiful and relatively undeveloped area lying in close proximity to a major city, traditional hunting grounds of the Gubbi Gubbi people (I’m not making this up!) and now home to Glasshouse Gourmet Snails, Queensland’s first commercial snail farm. Our Coaster ground its way up a very steep driveway and at the summit, we were met by the snail farmer Cliff and his trusty snail dog. Cliff was a fount of knowledge on all aspects of terrestrial pulmonate gastropod molluscs and began his tour with a pitch on the advantages of farm raised versus free range snails. Although snails have been part of the human diet for millennia, successful farming is a very recent development and very much a work in progress. There are three products, meat, serum and caviar. The snail meat we understand but the serum (basically snail slime used for cosmetics) and snail eggs are both labor intensive products to obtain and fetch a correspondingly high market price. The meat snails take some 9 months to grow to maturity, before being harvested and sold to a gourmet foods wholesaler for about 75 cents each. Cliff’s snail dog rooted around and behind the snail pens seeking mice and similar predators that might eat the livestock. Cliff spoke disparagingly of competition fuelled by the cheap labor costs of Yugoslavia, Columbia, the Philippines and beyond and seeing his tidy little farm in the Glass House Mountains, we were utterly convinced of the superiority of Queensland snails. Cliff offered Annette a snail to keep as a pet and I was astonished when she declined. She was concerned that the environment of the Coaster would be inadequate for such a charge.
September 30, 2014
While Ed checked all the tires – a tedious process using a 12 volt compressor, filled the water tank et cetera, Annette unloaded the bus contents onto the driveway, sorted and repacked all. I performed the same process with the various tools, plus the stern locker that carries our BBQ, power cords and plumbing pieces. We are ready to go! Annette has been researching snail farms, bat rehabilitation and red kangaroo skins, so our destination is set for tomorrow to visit a snail farm in the Glass Mountains north of Brisbane.
September 29, 2014
This morning we managed to sleep an extra hour until 0300 hours. We took a taxi to a nearby Toyota dealer and rescued our Coaster motor-home. Torque Toyota had replaced the heater core that failed during our trip last year and their body shop had similarly repaired the effects of our collision with a Wallaby. We set our next destination in our GPS and pulled out into traffic. The GPS that I had tested at the hotel yesterday, immediately died. Lost in Australia!Fortunately a nearby discount electronics store was able to remedy this defect with another GPS and we thus made our way to the driveway at Ray and Jodi’s house, plugged into their power and water before borrowing their car for an emergency beer run. What great hosts!
September 28, 2014
We awoke this morning in pitch blackness at 0200 hours, abandoning further futile attempts at sleep. It is 1100 hours yesterday in Texas but it is already 0200 hours here in tomorrow. We scoured our suitcases for chargers, Australian power adapters and the now mandatory accouterments of modern life in the form of cell phones, laptops, iPads, Kindles and Wi-Fi servers. Once everyone had been updated and fed electricity, we ascertained that the world hadn’t changed much since we moved to the Southern hemisphere and whiled away the hours until the hotel restaurant opened and we could treat ourselves to a “full” breakfast. The temperature was around 60F, our fellow travellers dressed in shorts while Annette and I wore long pants and sweaters.
In late morning Ray picked us up to visit his beautiful home for a BBQ lunch and when we arrived, his two children, Jesse and Dakota were playing in their unheated swimming pool. Brrrr!! Ray and Jodi fixed an incredible amount of food to eat but around 5 o’clock we were falling asleep again and probably poor company.
September 27, 2014
“UTC +10” That is what my computer tells me about our time zone and I believe it! We landed in Brisbane this morning, a few minutes before 5:00 a.m. and just before a glorious dawn. The sun had finally caught up with us. Our Qantas flight had taken off from Dallas Fort Worth airport in the darkness of 10:30 p.m. and we had followed the shadow of the earth around the planet, fleeing the sun for the next sixteen hours. A long night.
The Brisbane airport was empty, as you might expect at this time and as we emerged from the Customs area, we were hailed by our friend Ray Home, who works at this airport and who had arrived early at his workplace in order to meet our flight. We first met Ray with his wife on Easter Island a decade ago – they were on their honeymoon and we were taking a break from our circumnavigation, while our boat S/V DoodleBug was being hauled in Raiatea, French Polynesia to replace the propeller shaft oil seal. Small world! We sat with Ray at the terminal snack shop while we drank our first Australian beers and Ray, due to begin his shift, stuck with coffee. A short taxi ride to our hotel found it locked and barred with a sign indicating that they would not open the office for another thirty minutes at 7:00 a.m. The nearby coffee shop opened at the same hour, thus we sat at their outside table, drinking in the dawn, the scents of tropical flowers and the unfamiliar bird calls. Parrots flitted through the branches of the trees and we were amused by the strange laughing cry of a Raven.
Eventually the motel office opened and although we had requested an early check-in, this had been mistranslated as a “late check-in” and they were fully booked anyway, so no chance of an empty bed. They did find our reservation though, which always provides a good feeling. Okay, we had some hours to kill so we parked our suitcases and walked a half kilometer to a nearby shopping center, patiently awaiting the first batch of doughnuts to appear from the oven at the doughnut shop. Annette rarely buys doughnuts because she admits to zero self control when faced with collective pastries but this morning she was disappointed. They were not the hoped for Winchell’s clones but “yeast” or “cake” doughnuts. Shattered dreams – poor baby!
By 10:00 we were back at the motel with a room, shower and bed! A long trip but we are here, back in the Land of Oz! For those of you who are temporally challenged, the “UTC + 10” means that after correcting for “daylight savings”, we are now 15 hours ahead of Texas time.