Thursday, 27 August 2015

To the coast

Leaving Winton we travelled eastward gradually moving from very dry outback drought-ridden landscape into more tropical vegetation the closer we got to the coast. Sugarcane and Mango farms are extensive in this area.  Eventually we stopped at Ayr for a couple of days. Ayr is about 88 kilometres south of Townsville and is situated on the Burdekin River, and, with the coast also not far away, it is very popular for fishing. We stopped in a very nice park for several days to catch up on some washing and grocery shopping. The park has some very large Morton Bay Figtrees inhabited by masses of noisy birds. At night this changes to bats and their noise – squabbling and scrabbling along caravan rooftops is quite startling but thankfully around 10pm all settle down and everyone - birds, bats and holiday makers - all get a good night’s sleep.

From Ayr we continued south towards the coast and eventually came to Conway Beach not far from Airlie Beach. This area is very picturesque – tropical and warm, and was quite a change for us after the dryness of outback travel. Conway Bay turned out to be sited a short stone’s throw from a very shallow bay and the park is well set up with a holiday theme catering mainly for retiree travellers who like to fish – and there is bingo, craft days, pizza nights and happy hours each day. For young families there is a large modern playground area (bouncing castle, waterslide, shallow kiddy pools and a ‘train’ for rides around the park). A little too ‘Hi-De-Hi’ for us, but an interesting stop none-the-less.  One day we drove into Airlie Beach as we had heard so much about this place on the Whitsunday coast. We could not believe our eyes- with overdevelopment rampant, the town is huge. Masses of highrise (terraced into the hillside) houses and apartments, multiple shopping complexes, roundabouts, traffic and people everywhere. ALL the major fast food places had at least one outlet. Didn't see the beach at all, but there was a massive port area with boats coming and going. We were just shocked, and admittedly we had just spent weeks in the outback with few (but very friendly) people, very little traffic and wonderful wide open spaces - but still - how did they get away with it in such a beautiful area?

The jetty at Shute Harbour.
We turned away and drove a little south to Shute Harbour and this was much nicer. It is still a small town and very prettily situated. Do hope it doesn’t go the same way as Airlie Beach. Finally, we stopped in Proserpine and this, I imagine, has stayed much as it always has since its founding in the 1890s – a working town with sugar cane mill and old style shops and no pretence at being a resort. All in all it was an interesting tour of three very different towns all within twenty minutes drive of each other.

Shute Harbour.
We decided we had better start the long drive south and so from Conway Beach we overnighted near Wallaroo, then drove into Roma to stop for lunch supplies and also to see if the most amazing Drapery shop that I first saw two years ago was still operating. Ace Drapers in Roma is like no other store I’ve seen. It looks a bit decrepit from the outside, but inside is huge with goods stacked floor to ceiling height. 

The owner keeps buying stock but there is no space left so boxes and boxes get stacked two and three deep outside in alcoves along the shop front (these get taken inside at the end of each day!). He also has several other disused premises that he uses for storage. I have never seen so much fabric in one store in my life and it is quite overwhelming. There would not be anything in the drapery and kitchen goods area that is not available at this shop. 

Of course I found some fabric to buy and some sheets for the caravan too. The cutting table is piled high with more boxes of stock, so the assistant had a bit of difficulty cutting lengths of material. Likewise the cash register is also almost hidden beneath towering items  - but they were still able to take payment!
The ribbon section alone.
Me - searching for fabric. There is another aisle similarly packed with fabric.
 At the nearby men’s wear store we found some nice shirts and shorts for Peter and had a good long chat to the shop owner. He told us more about Ace Drapers. Apparently half the town is embarrassed at its excesses, whilst the other half thinks it should be on the tourist list of Roma attractions. I'm inclined to agree with the latter.

Next stop - Moree with its thermal pools. Looking forward to a dip.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Winton - and dinosaurs

And so to Winton. This place in outback Queensland is noted for two things  - firstly it is where one of our most famous bush poets, AB (Banjo) Paterson composed the words to our national song “Waltzing Matilda” and set it to an old Scottish air, and secondly – and more recently – it is most likely the dinosaur capital of Australia. Only about 30 years ago fossils and ancient bones were found on a station property and the owners were sufficiently intrigued to call in the experts from a Queensland university. Subsequent digs found masses of dinosaur bones and most dated about 90 million years ago. David Elliot the property owner donated the area, and the Australian Age of Dinosaurs was founded. It is growing in stages but at the moment consists of an excellent reception area/book and souvenir shop and a display with audio visual ‘theatre’ for visitors. Also offered is a tour of the Lab where lab technicians painstakingly chip away at plaster enclosed lumps of rock to expose the bones inside.

Peter at work in the lab
 We visited two years ago and Peter volunteered for two days to work in the lab and so again he fronted up for another couple of days. The original owner of the property has taken on the job of overseeing the whole wonderful project (leaving the running of his large property to his two sons), and is the most lovely man. Down to earth, he sits and chats to everyone, including me when I was sitting in the ‘crib room’ just knitting! He recently was awarded an ‘Order of Australia medal – and for his work and support of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs it was justly deserved.

We parked our van in Winton just across from the Tattersalls Hotel (the “Tatts”) and travelled each day to the AAD centre on a Jump-Up (high clifftop) south of the town. In the evening pub meals were excellent and it was good to sit outside and chat to other travellers.

On our last day we drove about 200 kms to Lark Quarry where there is evidence of a hoard of dinosaur footprints which had been imbedded in soft mud, then covered in ironstone which preserved them for us to see 98 million years later. It is quite astonishing to where a large dinosaur came upon many smaller ones, and to see how the footprints scattered. The experts suggest that that panic episode only took 3-4 minutes, but that moment in time and its story is revealed to us eons later.

The shelter built over the footprints - beautifully designed. Impressed with the whole complex.

The imprints of dinosaur footprints 98 million years old.

The area is undercover in an excellent custom built shelter and there are guided tours/talks three times each day. We took a picnic lunch and sat outside in a shaded shelter when all the visitors had left and enjoyed the desert like scenery with views of saltbush and spinifex and little native birds hanging around for crumbs. The guide came and sat with us while waiting his next group of people and a very personable and interesting young man he was, too. He considers it one of the best attractions in Australia - up there with Uluru (Ayers Rock) and the Great Barrier Reef. It's hard not to agree with him.
Footprint of the huge meat-eating dinosaur which caused the panicked rush of smaller dinosaurs.

The small dinosaur footprint (in positive) caused by ironstone. It's impossible not to touch it.

This short period of our holiday learning about dinosaurs has been fascinating for us. The almost incomprehensible time span of 98 million years brings home to me that a human lifespan is a mere speck in time but we are so fortunate to be able to visit this area which is revealing so much of life millions of years ago.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

About Charleville

Leaving Innamincka and re-tracing our route back into south-west Queensland, we turned off at Noccundra and drove north then east through Quilpie - a lovely, tidy little town with friendly locals and we enjoyed a stop for morning coffee and a chat with the cafe owner's mother who was changing a quilt display in the window.

She does stunning work and has such a flair for colour. She directed us down to the town's Information Centre where there was a small gallery of quilts made by local ladies. Those Quilpie quilters know their stuff! (Sorry, got carried away with alliteration!). Peter happily spotted a nearby exhibition of WW1 Military History and so avoided being dragged into the quilt display.

Our usual mode of travel is to leisurely get moving about 9am and drive maybe 300 kilometres with a break at a rest stop to stretch our legs and have a drink along the way (and hopefully find 'facilities' to use - and these vary considerably in these remote outback areas). This way we get to a camp spot in the early afternoon and avoid driving in the hottest part of the day. The parks we often stay at provide power and water, often sullage, and of course bathroom, shower and laundry facilities.

Typical 'toilet' in  outback reststops.
Other times - especially in very remote areas, we 'free park' with riverside areas or just areas set aside for travellers with only a basic toilet (usually eco) which is sometimes quite a distance away. However, as we are pretty well self sufficient with some solar panels to provide lighting and a little power at night, LP gas for our stove and a small refrigerator, so apart from shower/toilet for which we improvise, we manage very well. The added bonus is that in these remote areas, we often camp alone with maybe only one or two other vans some distance away - and we can have a campfire to sit around under the stars at night. So good for the soul!

We stopped for 5 days at Charleville - a town we visited several years ago and like a lot. It was a good chance to catch up on a little 'housework' with clothes washing, dusting out the van and re-stocking with food, not to mention a good clean up of ourselves too. These dry outback towns are still in drought situation, however water is drawn up from the Great Artesian Basin below and is used extensively. The downside is that there is a strong sulphur smell to it which dissipates when cooled. It's quite a novelty, though, to see that toilets are flushed with hot water.
The lovely 1929 Corones Hotel - built by a Greek migrant.

Charleville is lovely and makes sure its visitors are encouraged to stay longer with a variety of
attractions - the Cosmos Centre is a brilliant open air observatory perfectly sited in this part of the outback to take advantage of the clear night skies, also a Bilby Sanctuary, a newly built Flying Doctor Centre, campfire meals in the park, a few nice shops to browse, some beautiful old early 20th century buildings not forgetting the two remaining old Vortex rainmaking guns (which were, sadly, not a success).

One attraction which we loved was the American WW2 Convoy - a tagalong of cars with various stops through the large area on the outskirts of town which had been taken over by the Americans as a base during the war.

The small concrete building housed the Norden Bomb Sight during WW2
Over three and a half thousand soldiers/airmen manned this base - and it was huge - and very top secret. It was based here because it was too far for enemy fighters to reach, but could safely maintain planes to despatch to northern bases. Over two hundred and fifty bombers left Charleville (refuelling at Charters Towers) enroute to the Battle of the Coral Sea. Only about 210 made it back.

A restored Bomb Sight
Some buildings remain including one (of five) huge hangars which is now still in use by the Royal Flying Doctor service. The remains of mess-houses, bitumen baths, ablution blocks and dance halls are mostly just the concrete bases, but the small hospital building remains and is still used as a residence today. The most tightly held secret was the Norden Bomb Sight which was used by bombing crew to accurately pinpoint their target. When not in use they were stored in a small specially built concrete building, guarded day and night. This building remained empty and forgotten for decades until the story of  the American base was researched and the concept of the Convoy was planned. Trying to find an old Norden Bomb Sight somewhere in the world to display proved quite a challenge. Once one was found, all sorts of bureaucracy had to be overcome before it was even allowed into the country. One lesson they learnt was never to put the word 'Bomb' on any official import papers!

Once we were cleaned up, refreshed, re-stocked, we once more took to the open road heading north again with overnight stops at Blackall and Longreach. Next stop - Winton for a bit of dinosaur work.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

The "Dig Tree" and Innamincka

The tree on the right is the "Dig" tree.
Well, after a few detours, delays, worries about whether we had enough petrol to see us there and back from this very remote spot , we finally made it to the iconic “Dig Tree”.

It is well worth the trip to see this historic area with its tragic connection to the ill-fated Burke & Wills expedition in the summer of 1860/61. 

Photo taken in 1919.

Carving of Burke's face made in the 1890s.
It was originally called the Victorian  Exploring Expedition and its aim was to cross Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria at the very north. It consisted of 19 men, 26 camels, 6 wagons and 23 horses and it left in August 1860. They had to contend with wet, muddy route in Victoria but by the time they reached the Darling River it was summer with extremely hot weather. Burke continually split the party leaving ‘depots’ along the way with provisions. When he left here (Cooper’s Creek Depot Camp 65) he expected to return after reaching the Gulf in 3 months, if not the 4 Depot men were to return to Menindee. It turned out that on the very day they left in the morning (after delaying a further month), Burke, Wills and King arrived back in the afternoon to find the place deserted. However supplies had been left buried with the nearby tree blazed with the word ‘Dig’. Not sufficient though to last across the desert to Mount Hopeless station in South Australia, they returned to Coopers Creek and Burke and Wills died here at the end of June 1861. King only survived being cared for by the local aborigines until a relief expedition arrived in September.
It was near here that sole survivor, King was found being cared for by the local indigenous people.

They achieved their objective to reach the Gulf, but at a tragic cost. Travelling through this countryside in the height of summer and ill-provisioned with only rice, flour, sugar, salt beef and pork and biscuits, its no wonder some contracted scurvy and others fell ill and died in the heat. Madness to us now looking back at such a disastrous event.

We, however, camped very happily under Coolibah trees right by Coopers Creek. We dined extremely well on barbecued marinated pork steaks, campfire baked potatoes and salad with a glass of red (for me) and beer (for Peter). Later we sat outside by the fire watching the full moon rise over the water. A brilliant evening but thoughts always straying to that ill-fated expedition 153 years ago.
Further on along the Bulloo Developmental Road – again very good bitumen road with just a few gravelled parts but very little traffic, we crossed over the South Australian border and soon reached Innamincka. There’s been a ‘town’ here for well over 100 years, but mainly consists of the usual pub, general store, fuel supplies, a couple of houses and a Regional Reserve Park Headquarters. The pub/hotel is a step up from your usual outback pub, as it offers excellent meals and accommodation. The staff wear t-shirts proclaiming “Burke & Wills never had it so good”. True – they would have been overjoyed (and alive!) to have found it. We enjoyed a good long chat with fellow travellers over a roast dinner one night.

It is another remote, dusty outback settlement and you wonder how anyone would survive let alone flourish in such an environment. The local indigenous people did however and knew it was a land of plenty for them with fish, animals, edible vegetation and native fruits all they needed.

Our camp by Coopers Creek
We’ve had two days here camping by the river without power or water supplied, but we’re well prepared with two tanks of water, gas, and solar panels which re-charge our heavy duty battery to supply lighting at night. We’ve been most comfortable with good weather blue-sky days, but just a little ‘nippy’ at night. We love sitting by camp fires at night
and once the sun sets we have views of the most amazing sky at night – the stars are so bright and brilliant you sometimes feel you could just reach up and touch them.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Bourke and beyond

Bourke is not a town you immediately think of in terms of intellectual discussion, but this rough and ready outback town surprises. One night we sit around campfires listening to the local 'bard' and his poetry (Poetry on a Plate), and today I walk into a shop and am immediately drawn into a discussion on the merits of an English language university degree and then the origins of some English words. I love the unexpectedness of it all.

The old Bourke Bridge over the Darling River.
Bourke has had a bad reputation as a very rough, dirty - and sometimes dangerous - outback town. However we've visited twice over several years and have found it clean and tidy and very safe. It has a fabulous local history museum (Back o'Bourke). The old RSL is now Diggers on the Darling [River] and is a popular place to eat as is the great Chinese restaurant at the Bourke Bowls Club.

Locals are lovely and enjoy a chat, as a result it's one of our favourite places.

Leaving Bourke we travelled north then westward towards the Queensland/South Australian border.

On nearby Mt Oxley.

Distances are vast in the outback. Often you drive several hours without passing another vehicle. We travelled almost a thousand kilometres over two days to the Dig Tree. The first night we free-camped by the Wilson River not far from the Noccundra Hotel before reaching our destination. We have to calculate distances fairly precisely as sometimes it is 200-300 kilometres between fuel stops. There are good sealed roads in areas where there are mining or oil wells, but there are also great stretches of unmade graveled roads with accompanying corrugations and clouds of dust. We also have to look out for straying cattle, horses, emus, kangaroos with eagles, crows and corellas feasting on any roadkill.