Friday, 20 September 2013

The Last Leg of the trip

Leaving Goulburn early on Saturday (Australian Election Day) we drove to Windellama about 40 kms south on our quest to find and photograph another lone soldier's grave. This 18yo soldier had been buried in the grounds of a remote Roman Catholic church in 1942. The church and surrounds were abandoned and are now derelict and overgrown. As it is situated on a local farmer's property and it was only with the help of a local historian who arranged our visit to the farm and drove us in a 4WD following the farmer a considerable distance over very rough ground that we were able to achieve our aim. This photo shows the three men surrounding the grave. The photo of the grave plus the GPS reading we took will eventually be attached to the soldier's details on the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

It wasn't till early afternoon that we were able to continue our journey and so came to Moruya - a beautiful little town on the coast and while we would have loved to stay longer than overnight, we continued on next morning travelling down the coast road (the Princes Highway) and stopped at the Bega Cheese Centre. We had visited here 2011 and morning coffee seemed to be a good excuse for another visit. We took the opportunity to stock up on their wonderful cheeses.

Eden, well known as a whaling station in the 1800s, is now quite a large fishing port. This coastal area in the southern part of New South Wales was also the site of Boyd Town - which is one of the most interesting and mysterious early settlements in this remote part of the country.
Benjamin Boyd, a Scot, was an entrepreneur (in fact his occupations in Australia from 1841 until 1849 included banker, general merchant, grazier, MP, shipowner, whaler and blackbirder. It was his whaling interests that brought him to Two-Fold Bay on the south coast of New South Wales. He had grandiose plans for a large settlement and had built a magnificent tower (inscribed on top with his name) which originally was to have been a lighthouse, but became a convenient lookout for whales along the coast. The port was also to be a convenient place to ship out his stock from the many cattle stations he owned in southern New South Wales. Boyd's financing of his various trading, shipping and pastoral pursuits was dubious and when many of his businesses failed, he left on his yacht 'Wanderer' supposedly to raise more finance. He had no success on the Californian goldfields and in 1851 he sailed among the Pacific Islands with a grandiose plan to establish a Papuan Republic or Confederation. He went ashore at Guadalcanal to shoot game, but was never seen again. He was 48.
The beautifully situated Seahorse Inn was built to serve the the town but was left derelict. (It has now been restored and renovated to become a luxury boutique hotel). 

We continued on along the coast road (the Princes Highway), had a lunch stop at beautiful little Cann River and eventually came to Paynesville on the Gippsland Lakes. Here we stopped for a while to remember old times when Peter's father lived on nearby Raymond Island in the early 1970s.
The old punt has been upgraded to a very modern and efficient ferry (there is no bridge by popular vote) and only operates during the day until late evening. The locals are happy to be isolated overnight. Raymond Island is now a very nice little settlement with many new houses and the old shacks either removed or renovated. The island has much local flora and fauna (koalas for instance) and Pittosporum is now in full bloom and perfuming the air with its gorgeous scent. We decided our farewell dinner at the end of this long trip (about 11,000 kilometres) would be at Alma's Restaurant on the Paynesville Esplanade as we would be home the next day. It was a good choice - the dinner was excellent.

This trip was wonderful - the many outback towns and people we met were lovely. We especially enjoyed the warm and often hot weather up north. The places we had often heard about surprised and delighted us. The stories of the pioneering people of this outback part of Australia still astounds me and fills me with awe, as does present day people who work tirelessly to promote their hometowns and districts in spite of droughts, floods and searing summer heat.

Sitting typing this here at home on a cool, grey, drizzly spring day, I rather think I'd sooner be warm up north where we 'see the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended and at night the wond'rous glory of the everlasting stars' (thanks, Banjo). There is no way I could express it any better!

Sunday, 8 September 2013

The start of the long trip south

We began our travels south and on the first day came to Townsville. The park we stayed in was beautifully set up and just across the road from the beach with a fine view of Magnetic Island. Sunday morning's main street market was well attended and we enjoyed not only the great variety of stalls selling everything from fresh local produce to homemade crafts and the usual gimmicky of crystals and incense etc, but also the varied and beautiful early architecture of this major coastal town of Queensland.

Our next leg took us inland and we eventually came to Lake Maraboon near Emerald. This park was exceptionally lovely situated right by a lake and nearby dam and so was quite popular for fishermen. It also provided a service we hadn't experienced before - meals on wheels delivered conveniently to your caravan or tent!
First thing each morning a chattering flock of very friendly Rainbow Lorikeets arrived seeking breakfast from the enchanted campers. Despite the many hundreds of kilometres south we have travelled, we are still enjoying hot, summery weather, and are not looking forward to the cool Spring weather at home.

From our base here at Lake Maraboon we drove each day to the gemfields - Rubyvale and Sapphire. We took an underground tour through a mine and learnt about the dangers and sometime the rewards that oldtime miners experienced as they tried to find their fortune. Most of the sapphires found in Australia come from this area and are usually quite a dark blue although other colours are found also. My own engagement ring contains a dark blue sapphire and  so I think it is highly likely it was found here. We were able to buy a few 'buckets of wash' and learnt how to sift and wash the sandy soil to hopefully find some gemstones. This could become quite addictive! We actually found some sapphires and also a couple of zircons - but they were all quite small and not good quality. Oh well - we'll have to find another way to pay for our next trip!

After Lake Maraboon we continued the trip south and once again came to Roma where we had stopped only briefly on our way north. This time we spent a few days here to see what we had missed the first time. A browse of the main street shops was interesting especially one. This was a drapery and I must say I have never seen anything like it in all my born days. It was stuffed from floor to ceiling with items for sale - all higgledy-piggledy. You took your life in your hands when walking down the narrow aisles as the packed shelving  went almost to the ceiling. This incredible shop must have been started around the 1950s and I doubt there has been any attempt to bring any sort of order to the stock in all those years. I think it should be up there on the list of essential tourist attractions of Roma!

We had another surprising experience in Roma. This area was established in the early days mainly because of the oil and gas fields near to the town and a 'sound and light' show each evening tells the story. We joined the queue while waiting for the doors to open and Peter mentioned to me that a nearby couple looked familiar to him, but it wasn't until we moved into the lighted area that we were able to see them clearly - and they us! "South America" we all said together. They were
South Australians John and Bernadette who were also on the trip we took in 2008 to South America. What a lovely surprise to see them again and after the show we really enjoyed a rather long chat. They too were at the same park as we were in Roma and leaving the next day as we were.

We had several overnight stops next - Goondiwindi our final stop in Queensland and then into New South Wales with another overnight stop at Coonabarabran.

At Cowra we stopped for several days and enjoyed sightseeing this rather lovely town. Top of the list had to be the remains of the WW2 Interment camp which was the site of the Cowra breakout of  378 Japanese prisoners in August 1944.  At the same time 231 were killed and another 107 were wounded. All those that escaped were later re-captured. (Four AMF personnel were killed and four were wounded). I hadn't realised that the camp also held some Italian, Korean and Formosan P.O.Ws as well. We also visited the POW Theatre which has a very clever interactive media presentation with a hologram relating the story of Cowra and the details of the escape attempt.

Cowra has since become the centre of Japanese Cultural Heritage in Australia and maintains beautifully the Japanese War Cemetery and has developed (in conjunction with Ken Nakajima, a Japanese Garden Architect), the stunning Cowra Japanese Garden - a strolling garden. We were several weeks early for the cherry blossom trees, but the garden was still quite wonderful.

Goulburn was our next stop and here we stopped for a few days to have a good look around this vibrant town. Peter enjoyed a visit to the Rail Heritage Centre.  In 1869 the first steam railway in Australia was constructed between Sydney and Goulburn (224 kms) and the Loco Roundhouse, built just after WW1. is now the home of the Preservation Society.

We have by now travelled quite a distance south and as a result the weather is getting a good deal cooler and although the days are still fine, the nights are much chillier and blankets are being piled on the bed once again.


Sunday, 25 August 2013

Cairns and Cooktown

We came to Cairns on Saturday morning and found our way to my old school friend's home in Bayview Heights. Alison and her husband Fred have lived in Cairns for about 15 years and so we have seen little of each other since our retirement. Al and I - both early baby-boomers - started school together and we became even closer friends when my family and hers became neighbours in 1957. After all these years, it is wonderful that we are still so comfortable together, and many happy hours were spent reminiscing about our early life and also trying to name all the people in our old school photos. After about 55 years we didn't do too badly either!

We parked our van in their driveway in what was to turn out a fourteen day visit instead of the planned four to five days. Our car (damaged in Normanton) was assessed by our insurance company on Tuesday and we were told that repairs would be carried out and that it would be completed in about ten days. No worries, said Al and Fred - and so we began a most enjoyable stay in this surprisingly busy tropical city.

We dined out a few times, toured the city, visited the beautiful Botanical Gardens, and  took a day's trip out to the lovely reef island off Cairns - Green Island where I could have quite happily stayed on at the resort there.

Our hosts decided a trip up to Cooktown would be a good idea, so on Saturday morning we loaded our overnight bags into their 4WD car and we set off on the 5 hour drive up to Cooktown. We had visited this lovely little town once before and not a lot has changed in the intervening years. We checked into the Sovereign Resort where we had a very swish, modern two bedroom apartment.  Hot and sticky after our long trip, Al and I (and later Peter) tried out the beautiful pool in the Resort's tropical gardens.

Next day we visited the Cooktown Heritage Centre which is housed in a beautifully restored Convent. Inside is a trove of items relating to the early pioneering days and also much about Captain Cook's troubles when he sheltered the Endeavour at Cooktown to repair the coral reef damage to his ship over a six week period. The Endeavour's anchor is on display and, together with extracts from the ship's log, it is fascinating to think about that time and the efforts Cook and his crew went to, to effect repairs. There is also mentioned their description of either a Wallaroo or Wallaby - the best they could do was liken it a little to a greyhound!

A trip to the top of Grassy Hill gave us a spectacular 360 degree view of Cooktown surroundings. The reefs and islands and the astonishingly blue sea were just breath-taking. Cook would have had the very same view, but while we were oohing and ahhing at the vista, his notes were all about trying to see a safe passage through the surrounding reefs for his ship.

An afternoon visit to the historic cemetery was interesting. There is so much information on some of the very old headstones. It was sad to see so many infants and young children that didn't survive and quite a few had been drowned. A short visit to the Cooktown Family History Centre was an eye-opener for me. For such a small group (about 30 members), they have set up an astonishing good display and have published quite a few very interesting booklets on various aspects of the pioneering days. I bought a few for our family history library in Frankston.

Driving home we travelled along the Bloomfield Track through the Daintree Rainforest World Heritage Park. This road is unmade and very rough and it was necessary to find a good place to ford the many small bush creeks along the way. After several hours we eventually reached more open countryside and finally arrived at Cape Tribulation.

Cape Tribulation was named by Captain Cook in June 1770  after his ship scraped a reef north east of the cape now named Endeavour Reef.  Cook recorded "...the north point [was named] Cape Tribulation because here begun all our troubles". The beach itself is extensive and very beautiful and with the tide out we had quite a walk to dip our toes in the warm waters.

We ate our lunch at one of the picnic tables under the trees and were treated to a visit by a very inquisitive goanna about one and a half metres in length. Foreign tourists nearby were aghast when he sauntered up to their sandaled feet but the cameras were soon clicking when they learnt he was harmless.

From the Cape to Cairns, the road is sealed and so we had a much more comfortable trip home. We just had to stop though at a place just outside Cape Tribulation for home-made icecream. With flavours like Wattleseed, Banana, Blueberry, Passionfruit and Coconut, this little business set in a gorgeous tropical garden was doing a roaring trade. 

Our last few days in Cairns were spent re-stocking our food supplies and getting rid of the last vestiges of red dust which had infiltrated every corner of the van in the Gulf country.

On Thursday evening we took Al and Fred for a very special dinner at Dundees on the Cairns waterfront as a thank-you for their hospitality and on the Friday, as had been promised, our car was returned to us all repaired and shiny.

Sad to say goodbye to our friends, but pleased we could begin the long trip south, we left Cairns to continue on to new places on our way home.


Thursday, 15 August 2013

Croydon to Mareeba

From Croydon, we continued easterly until we came to Georgetown where we parked the caravan whilst we had a dusty drive down to Forsayth (another soldier's grave to photograph) and then on to Cobbold Gorge. We had heard such a lot about this place and so we treated ourselves to an overnight stay in a very nice cabin and had booked a morning walk with a guide through the bush and then by boat through the gorge.

We arrived at the resort mid-afternoon and sat outside admiring the view when our 'neighbours' -  the retired people in the next cabin invited us over for a chat and a nice glass of red. After about half an hour we got around to asking their occupations before retirement.  Another startling coincidence for us -  the wife had worked in schools and the husband had been an electrician. This is the second time this has happened to us on this trip. We must attract them!
Next day after breakfast we joined the morning tour group and travelled by 4WD coach into the bush some distance away. Our knowledgeable guide was a mine of information on the history, flora and fauna of the area and on the way we passed the grave of John Corbett, an early settler in this area who had died and was buried in the bush. Everyone stood around quietly only for me to dispel the reverential silence by pointing out that the spelling on the headstone was in error - 'Who's body is buried here' which should have been 'Whose body....' - oh dear, I can't help myself! After about an hour, we were taken down into the gorge to board a very silent narrow boat through the astonishing gorge - so remote it was only discovered about 15 years ago.

Along the banks of the creek and on the massive rocks, several freshwater crocodiles were sunning themselves - so still we all thought they were 'props' until with a sudden swish of their tails they disappeared into the water. The gorge itself is a beautiful waterway rarely if ever without water even in drought. It is very narrow in parts so the boats were long and narrow to fit, and being electric powered, they moved silently along.

We returned to the resort, had lunch then drove back to Georgetown to our caravan.

Next day we meandered on eastwards and gradually the landscape changed from the dry, red dusty plains to small hills with more trees and vegetation. The hills we travelled up were so gradual we didn't realise quite how high we had climbed. But the trees became taller and the vegetation more lush and at a place called Archer Creek - quite far from any town - we came to an area off the road and beside a bubbling creek which allowed 'free parking for 48 hours'. This meant any travellers were welcome to stop here overnight (free of charge) with the only facilities - a very basic toilet.

However it was a very pretty, shady place and so was quite popular with other caravanners, RV-users and campers. Some people were already set up by early afternoon and one even had a market tent selling clothes and another lady provided hair cuts for $10! By sundown approximately 30 assorted campers were well set up, some with a few outdoor fires to sit around. Of course with no electricity, we relied on our LP gas for cooking and battery operated LED lamps for light so I was still able to have my half hour of reading before an early night.

I must say that despite piling on the bedclothes, it was FREEZING overnight, so very quickly first thing in the morning the gas oven was lit and the door left open for ten minutes or so to warm up the caravan. I didn't envy those sleeping in tents.

Continuing along the Savannah Way towards the coast, we came to Mareeba and decided to stop a few days here. As it was the first place we had come to in quite a while that didn't have water restrictions, it was a good chance to wash down our caravan which was still just about covered with the fine red dust from the outback roads. A trip to the local supermarket stocked up our supplies and the park's washing machines gave us nice fresh clothes.

Coffee, as well as many tropical fruits are grown in this area and so one day we visited the Australian Coffee Centre at Skybury not far from Mareeba. We had a delicious coffee while waiting for the next tour then had a guide show us the plantation and tell us all about growing and processing coffee. Papaya, banana, limes and pineapples are also grown on this farm by a family who came here from Zimbabwe about 25 years ago. As well as a few bags of coffee beans, we also brought some delicious lady finger bananas, and a papaya - a fruit which we hadn't tried before.

Onwards to Cairns to stay a while with long-time friends, Alison and Fred. The few days planned for Cairns has since turned into almost two weeks as our car is in for repairs here. More about our stay in Cairns in the next posting.


Saturday, 3 August 2013

On to Isa and the Northern Outback.

Leaving Winton we travelled 240 kms till arriving at McKinlay mid afternoon. A tiny place with a very well known pub thanks to the film 'Crocodile Dundee'. The only park was behind the pub so we settled in and as we noticed the pub provided evening meals, we decided to dine out. The drinking bar of the pub is pretty much the same as it was during the movie. However there was quite a nice, old-fashioned room for dining painted in shades of green with William Morris design curtains and matching oil-based tablecloths which I'm sure Crocodile Dundee never saw. Shortage of tables meant we were asked to share with another couple and would you believe - the wife worked in a secondary school office and library and her husband was an electrician. Same as us! What are the odds in such a remote area of Australia?

Next stop was the city of Mount Isa known to the locals as 'The Isa', and known all over Australia for decades as THE mining city. They mine copper, lead, zinc and silver and for many years the deep underground mines have been a mecca for miners to earn big money. It is an extremely busy place with a thriving shopping centre, traffic lights, and all the attractions of a big city. We took advantage of the supermarkets and stocked up on supplies, then booked into the major event for travellers - a trip down a mine - in this case it was The Hard Times mine.

With about 20 others of mixed ages we were given a briefing from a retired miner, Bill, and were then kitted up with disposable overalls, hard hat, miner's belt to which was attached a heavy battery pack to power the light on our hard hats. Finally we were given gumboots and we were ready for our photo session before 'going down'.  We were given a really good idea of the work that miners did in the 1950s and 1960s and the equipment used then. Such a hard, heavy and dangerous line of work, in spite of the many safety rules and we were told of many stories about accidents in the mines.

Leaving Mt.Isa and its busy-ness behind we headed north into the bush and unmade roads and finally came to Gregory Downs. The pub has been operating since the late 1880s and most grey nomads stop for a cool drink, enquire for caravan parking (to the rear of the pub!),  a chat with the locals and other travellers not to forget the two or three friendly dogs wandering around. I think the Gregory Downs pub might just be the only pub I've ever known to sell homemade icecream and the local aboriginal children lined up for a treat. Once settled, we had the job of dusting out the van. The fine red dust seeped into just about every nook and cranny in the van.

Next stop was Burketown right up near the Gulf of Carpentaria. Burketown is believed to be the basis of "Willstown"  a very amenity-challenged town fictionally developed into a successful and growing community to become A Town Like Alice by Jean Paget, a character created by Nevil Shute in his bestselling novel of that name.

It is a quiet little town and very popular with holidaying fishermen many of whom arrive with their caravans and 'tinnys' (aluminium small boats) during the winter months to fish for the famed barramundi. (This fish is highly prized for its beautiful delicate flavour). The shady caravan park is lovely and peaceful - except when a large flock of very noisy corellas (native birds) take possession of the trees. Our caravan park neighbour half demented by the continuous loud squawking had an ingenious contraption of a tin box filled with rattling stones which he hauled up into the branches (like you would raise a flag) to try and scare off the birds. Did it work? Nup!

These days Burketown is the administrative base of the vast Burke Shire Council. There is a small supermarket, a combined butcher and baker, small café, service station and, of course, a pub. Unfortunately the pub burnt down last year and a new pub is presently being built. A small library, a kindergarten and a neat and tidy primary school are among the few facilities in the town.

The town is also popular with glider and hang-glider pilots during  September and October  who like to 'surf' the Morning Glory cloud which appears in September and October - a big moist cloud that rolls in and which glider pilots love to 'surf'. We liked our short stay in Burketown. Just on the outskirts we came across a large flock of Brolgas - large graceful and they looked wonderful.

The road next travelled was east along the Savannah Way - about 200 kilometres of mainly unsealed road to Normanton (think lots and lots of fine red dust - called 'bulldust' which managed to work its way into every nook and cranny of our caravan). Guess what we spent a fair bit of time doing when we finally got to the park in Normanton? A reward for the hard travelling along this road was the vista of the beautiful Leichardt River named by an early explorer Ludwig Leichardt during his first expedition in 1845 but who disappeared during a later unsuccessful expedition to cross the continent in 1848.

We booked a trip on the little Gulflander train which travels between Normanton and Croydon and which only travels one way on Wednesdays and returns the following day. This is quite an experience for train aficionadas and when three carriages were packed with people we began the trip. Because this part of the Gulf country is often inundated with floods, an ingenious method of laying inverted steel sleepers meant the rail line was never washed away in 125 years. However, it is definitely not a fast smooth ride taking five and a half hours to cover the 156 kilometres to Croydon. The driver, Ken, (aka the Normanton Station Master, Savannah guide and train driver) kept us entertained with facts about the line and stories of the people connected with it and we stopped for half an hour for a morning coffee and muffin along the way. We got to keep the enamel mug inscribed with The Gulflander as a souvenir.

At Croydon - a very small town (once a gold town), we stayed at the very old Club Hotel. Definitely not Hilton standard but extremely interesting nonetheless. Dinner at the pub that night was delicious Barramundi, chips and salad. Sunset from the veranda bar was spectacular.

Of course next day, we had to return to Normanton with another five and a half hours of noisy and bumpy rail travel. However, when we returned it was to find our car had been vandalised with a rear back side window smashed and several side panels also dented by rocks. The local Police quickly apprehended the culprits - two 10 year old Aboriginal lads from out of town! Too young to be charged but the local Normanton people where horrified and couldn't stop apologising to us. Luckily the kids hadn't managed to get into the car, so nothing was stolen. Hopefully, we'll get the window replaced in Cairns in about a week's time. In the meantime it is sealed up securely with the ubiquitous duct-tape. If that is the worst that can happen to us on this trip, then we'll be satisfied.

We still managed to do a bit of sight-seeing around Normanton and one day drove to Karumba right on the Gulf of Carpentaria to actually see the Gulf waters. This area is well known for the huge crocodiles in the ocean and rivers and so despite the heat any swimming is done safely in swimming pools. There is a model of an enormous crocodile in the main street of Normanton based on a monster which was caught back in the 1950s - amazingly by a woman.

All our washing of dusty bedding and clothes completed, we are now on our way again. Today we drove along the Gulf Development Road eastwards, and once again we are in Croydon. This time it took us less than two hours to get here!


Saturday, 27 July 2013

Longreach and Winton

We arrived in Longreach after another long drive through out Outback countryside as we had been told the Stockman's Hall of Fame was not to be missed. There is also the Q.A.N.T.A.S. Founders Museum which appealed to us, not to forget the early history of the town with its Cobb & Co coach network spreading from here across the land in the early days of settlement.

We liked the idea of a coach ride to give us a taste of the old days, so we booked 'An Outback Show and Coachride' (with a gallop through the bush!) to begin our stay in Longreach. An old fashioned 'Dad & Dave' kind of presentation with input from clever horses, a lovely cheeky red heeler dog and chooks (chickens - to non-Australians!) was most enjoyable, before we were all loaded onto a coach pulled by four horses for our ride out from town to the bushy area nearby. Loved the ride although I doubt I'd have liked travelling very far a century or more ago. Roads were unmade and bumpy and with horses needing to be changed every ten miles it would have been an extremely uncomfortable and slow journey, although I supposed I've been very spoilt by modern transport. A Devonshire tea refreshed us and the afternoon finished with a viewing in a bush cinema of an old 1950s Australian movie "Smiley gets a Gun".

We had been looking forward to the Q.A.N.T.A.S. Founders Museum and were not disappointed when we visited. It is beautifully built and with much early history on the founding and growth of the Qantas airways and together with multi-media displays there was much to look at. A guided tour and talk about the planes on display here - an early Avro, a Catalina, the first 707 and finally a 747 was given by a very knowledgeable guide. Did you know that the big jet engines are attached to the plane by only 3 bolts?? I had looked forward to experiencing First Class for the first time on the 747, but sadly that part of the plane had been re-figured for more economy seats. I had to settle for Business Class and so I still have an unfulfilled dream!

On our final day in Longreach we visited the iconic Stockman's Hall of Fame. A beautiful building containing several levels each giving a different display on early Australian life and especially the outback people who persevered in those early settlement days on remote cattle stations.

The Hall of Fame featured a very talented leather worker, films and (another) Outback Show. Again there were multi-media displays and a area devoted to the Royal Flying Doctor Service was especially interesting.

Heading north again we came to Winton but just before we got there, we noticed a turn-off to the left directing us to The Age of Dinosaurs centre. Well, of course, we couldn't go past that and so turn in and drove about 10 kilometres before we had to unhitch the caravan and drive up a very steep hill (called a 'Jump Up') to the recently built complex. These dinosaur bones had been noticed for quite a few years by a local property owner, David Elliot, and eventually he sent photos to the University of Queensland who naturally were extremely interested. The result is the world's largest collection of Australian dinosaur fossils and a most  innovative natural history museum in which to house them. A massive amount of fossils have been extracted, encased in plaster and lined up on shelves in the laboratory awaiting attention. As this part of the country is extremely hot during much of the year, excavation work is only carried out for a short period in winter months. The bones are then worked on in the laboratory throughout the year. I would guess there would be about 100 years of work waiting! Volunteers to help are warmly welcomed and have a training session beforehand.

Peter decided that this would be a great experience and signed up for two day's work, so whilst I stayed with the caravan in Winton Peter went off to work each morning - just like the old days (although no pay this time!). He loved the work and learnt much about dinosaur fossils. I used the spare time to edit the family history journal which I do quarterly, interspersed with walks around town and talks with locals.

Winton, too, featured in the early days of Qantas, and it was also on a station near here that Banjo Paterson wrote the words to an old (supposedly, Scottish) ballad with the result that "Waltzing Matilda" is known far and wide and loved by more Australians than our anthem "Advance Australia Fair". Winton has a very good  museum devoted mainly to Waltzing Matilda, but again featuring local history as well.

After three really interesting days, it was time to pack up again and continue our trip and wonder what other unexpected experiences we'll have.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Lightning Ridge to Blackall

A long drive across country brought us to Lightning Ridge, an opal mining town known for its high quality black opals. We decided to stay a few days here to give us a chance to do some washing, some re-stocking of supplies, and general tidy-up, as well as time to see all the delights of the town. I was surprised at how much it differed from Coober Pedy the milky opal mining town in outback South Australia. Lightning Ridge has a much more settled layout with wide paved streets and a good selection of shops. Mining is still done fairly close to the town, but streets and houses seem more 'ordered' than ad hoc. Of course being a mining town there are nationalities from all over the world - some arriving decades before and those bitten by the opal fever have remained constructing for themselves homes of their own imagining and bizarre some of them are, too! One Italian miner began building his home over his mine entrance - and didn't stop. The castle-like building is now quite extensive although most of it is not roofed over.

Other miners, not content with just finding opal, began a series of underground caves and these have massive carvings throughout. Egyptian motifs, 'terracotta' soldiers as well as cartoon characters abound. This has been turned into a popular tourist attraction and probably brings in as much money as the elusive black opal.

Far beneath this area of Australia is the Great Artesian Basin, and bores in the dry outback make good use of the warm water. I was quite surprised that several parks toilet facilities flushed with hot water before I realised it was bore water. In Lightning Ridge a open air public pool is fed with hot (40degree) water from beneath the earth's surface and I happily joined others having a good long soak and a swim. Young aboriginal children also were having fun at the pool with some as young as 4 swimming like fishes and older boys joyfully taking tumbling dives into the middle of the pool.

After our stay at Lightning Ridge we moved on to Charleville and this turned into one of our favourite places so far. This outback town is working hard to develop its attractions and as a result the town is doing well with visitors staying extra days. We enjoyed the WW2 Secret American Air force base 'tag along' tour (over 2,500 American servicemen stationed at a huge base but with no interaction with the townspeople at all!). In the evening we visited the Cosmos Astronomical Centre for a talk about the night sky and a viewing of the heavens through huge telescopes. We could see Saturn and its rings quite clearly! The night skies here in outback Australia are incredibly clear and the cosmos vast and bright - it is the ideal place for an observatory.

On display in the town are several Vortex guns. In1902 Queensland was in the grip of a great drought. In desperation  Queensland's first Government Meteorologist decided to experiment with Steiger Vortex Guns, developed to break up hail over the vineyards of Italy. The experiment failed to produce the much needed rain, but several of the guns remain for us to view.

On another day we enjoyed 'Stories and Scones at Corones Hotel'. The story we were told was of a penniless Greek immigrant with no knowledge of English who arrived in Australia with his young nephew and eventually found his way to Charleville. He started a successful café,  became a licensee of a pub for 10 years, and then built his own very grand hotel in town in 1929. He loved Charleville and was instrumental in getting a hospital built, the fire brigade started and other essential services. Mostly I think he was loved because after both the first and second world wars, he and his wife insisted on employing widows of servicemen in his business. For his work, he was given an MBE for his service to the town. It was an amazing story of the life of one poor immigrant, and the afternoon was made even better by a delicious serve of scones and cream and coffee!

Later that evening we visited the Bilby Centre in town and learnt about efforts to save this endangered species of a small, little known (but undeniably cute) Australian marsupial. Being nocturnal, they are rarely seen in the wild, but introduced predators (wild cats, foxes, etc) have reduced the population alarmingly. A major effort mainly by volunteers are doing their best to protect and breed up the number of bilbies.

We have been quite surprised at how a number of outback towns are developing and promoting the various attractions of their areas. Bourke was the first one we encountered and Charleville too. Both have hardworking people prepared to do their best for their own towns, and travellers like us are delighted to participate.

Moving on - we continued our drive north making an overnight stop at Blackall where the park offered travellers a roast beef and vegetable dinner followed by damper and golden syrup for $20 per head. It was delicious - and best of all we didn't have to cook it ourselves. We've noticed quite a few parks do this and it is a lovely way to share a meal and chat with other travellers after a long day on the road. Some parks also offer entertainment in this case it was an Australian country music singer - but not being fans of this type of music, we stayed away.

We intended to start reasonably early for the next stage to Longreach, but again we got talking to other caravanners and an hour or so later, we finally began the drive. We have reached the lovely stage when an hour here or there talking to people is no problem at all - clockwatching on this trip is happily not high on our agenda.


Sunday, 7 July 2013

Back of Bourke

At Bourke, we stayed at Kidmans Camp (recommended by my cousin Barbara) - and a very nice well laid out park it is too. Plenty of grass, trees and generous spaces for caravans not to mention the clean and well-appointed facilities. On our first evening there, Poetry on a Plate was scheduled - byo camp chair, crockery, cutlery and drinks, gather by the campfire and listen to a local musician/poet, Andrew Hull,
entertain with songs, poems and stories about Bourke and surrounds. Halfway through, a generous serve of delicious slow cooked beef casserole, rice and dahl/lentil and vegie dish is piled up on your own plate. This is followed later by a very nice lemon curd tart.

Sitting around the campfire, we got talking - as you do - with a nearby couple exchanging the usual question 'Where are you from?' They were from Kinglake, Victoria (and had the misfortune to have been burnt out in the disastrous fires of 2009). They were interested to learn we were from Hastings as the husband's brother lived there 'in Hendersons Road'. It turns out their relatives are our long-time neighbours from directly opposite our house. Small world indeed.

Bourke, for such a small place, is quite famous and is celebrated in stories and poetry as the archetypal Australian outback town. The poet Henry Lawson lived here for quite a few months and I have enjoyed reading a book of his short stories while here. Some, like "The Loaded Dog" I've read many times and still giggle over; others like the poignant "Brighten's Sister in Law" brought home the dangers of living in such remote areas last century when the lack of medical care for sick children was every parent's fear.

We were told a visit to Bourke Cemetery was a must just to pay respects to Prof Fred Hollows, famous for his eye surgery (not only to indigenous Australians but also to poor people in Third World Countries) who is buried there. This we did and also photographed several soldiers' graves for Peter's ongoing volunteer work for 'The War Graves Photographic Project'. Just wandering in a small section we noticed three police officers' graves from last century and ALL had been shot. Not a good long term career choice for police back then it would seem.

One day we visited the Back O'Bourke Exhibition Centre a world class centre showcasing the history of western New South Wales and Bourke. It focuses on the people and the landscape that have not only contributed to the life of Bourke but also the history of Australia. It would have to be the best local history museum I've seen. At the same place was an open air Outback Show conducted by a well known bush character Luke Thomas who, with his team of working bullocks, Clydesdale horses, camels, sheep dogs and performing trick horses staged an entertaining Outback Show.

The Paddle Vessel Jandra built by a local family in 2000 is a replica of an earlier boat which plied the
Darling River. At North Bourke it cruises the river giving tourists a taste of what it was like in earlier times. Last century quite a few paddle steamers moved not only passengers but local products including wool and crops to markets up and down the river system when roads were either non-existent or in very poor condition. On a beautiful sunny day, it was very pleasant floating down the Darling, watching birdlife and the passing river bank. The Jandra, flying the Murray/Darling River Flag from her bow, reminded us of a trip two years ago on Murray River many hundreds of miles down south.

On our last day in Bourke, we travelled 100ks south-west to Louth, an even smaller outback town which mostly seem to consist of a few houses, a pub, post office and general store. We had a most enjoyable lunch sitting outside in the sunshine talking with a few of the locals. I noticed that if a doctor's visit is needed, you fill in a form at the pub and this way you have an appointment with the Royal Flying Doctor on his next visit. Just by the town is an enormous area fenced off and labelled 'Cemetery'. There is approximately 6 very old headstones and one very tall (7 metre) monument for a much loved wife of a pub owner who died in 1866. Of course many more - about 100 - are buried here without markers and a nice idea is a brass plaque listing their names situated near the gate.

Back in Bourke, we tidied and packed up the caravan ready for the next leg of our journey. Next stop is the black opal settlement of Lightning Ridge.


Monday, 1 July 2013

Travelling North again!

We left a cold, wintry Victoria a few days ago to caravan north through central Victoria, NSW and Queensland - parts of Australia which we haven't seen before and the Kidman Way is the route we'll travel.

First day from home saw us finally pull up for the night at Tocumwal in NSW just over the Victorian border and already we have noticed the huge road trains thundering along the highways. The weather is still cool, but by the second day when we finally reach the beginning of the Kidman Way, the sky has cleared and the sun is shining. All bodes well! We make a left turn onto the Sturt Highway driving along until we arrive at Hay where we stay for two days. Hay was made famous/infamous in Banjo Paterson's poem 'Hay, Hell and Booligal' in which nearby Booligal is compared unfavourably with Hay. Booligal in the 1890s was unlucky enough to experience heat, sand, dust, flies, rabbits, mosquitos, snakes and drought and Paterson humorously suggests Hay - or even Hell - would be preferable.

The town of Hay is surrounded by very flat terrain and is a massive sheep farming area. Sheep numbers were culled during the drought years to only a fraction of their previous numbers and only now are beginning to increase. There is a very big and very well presented museum - Shear Outback - which we visited in the afternoon. Much information about the early sheep industry and its people. A large custom built shearing shed (moved from the Murray Downs) is the setting for a top shearer, Billy, to give a talk about the industry and to demonstrate how to shear a sheep. Later his sheep-dog, Beau, demonstrates his skill at rounding up a flock of sheep. Lunch at the museum's café went down very well.

Also at Hay during war years (chosen because of its remote outback location) was an Interment Camp used to accommodate many thousands of internees - Italians, Japanese and also 2500 Jewish boys (the famous Dunera Boys). A display is housed in two old railway carriages at the restored Hay Railway Station. Artefacts and stories both sad and heart-warming are featured of a time still well remembered by local people.

On leaving Hay we travelled back to the Kidman Way to again travel north. We encountered several herds of cattle making use of the grass verges along the roads (the long paddock) - a reminder that some parts of the country are still desperately short of cattle feed because of drought conditions.

After about 400 kilometres we arrived at Cobar, another outback town well known for mining - mainly copper, but also gold, zinc and lead. The town thrived after the discovery of copper in the late 1800s, and although there is still a working mine at the moment, the population is nowhere near what it was in boom times. The Cobar Heritage Centre in the town tells of the early mining discoveries by two Danish men (with very un-Danish names of Campbell and Hartman!) who found green coloured rocks which were readily identified as copper by the Cornish-born wife of a settler. The history of the area both aboriginal and European is well told in various displays. One I particularly liked was the railway carriage converted by the Far West Children's Health Scheme to provide child welfare for outback families in various far-flung areas from 1931 and only finishing in 1975. This travelling service was welcomed and greatly loved giving parents peace of mind as well as valuable advice about childhood health issues. Previously the nearest help would have been days away from their home.

Tomorrow - we're continuing north to Bourke.