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.