This blog wasn’t the only thing written while we were of no fixed abode.
Here are some articles based on our brewery experiences, published after the trip.
This blog wasn’t the only thing written while we were of no fixed abode.
Here are some articles based on our brewery experiences, published after the trip.
So the trip is finished *big sigh*
Over five months we pretty much did a lap of the continent.
We had an outstanding time, saw so many things and met so many people, but it really feels like we only scratched the surface. Don’t be surprised if this website gets resurrected if we find the means to make another trip.
Each post is listed below in the order they were written so you can look back at some of the posts or check them out for the first time. Thanks for reading.
Any questions – feel free to post a comment.
Caption competition result
Heading home for a Christmas surprise
A paper plate is suspended, flattened by the force of the wind against the criss-cross wire fencing around the small park in the tiny border town of Hebel. Nearby, the gazebo above the public barbeque is shaking back and forth. Normally we’d be eating our lunch at a table in a place like this, but the weather is so harsh we’re better off inside THE BENCH, even though it’s swaying gently from side to side.
The excitement of the storm is electric – in more ways than one. We’ve just come charging through the dirt from Brewarrina on the last miles of New South Wales with a drama enacted in the skies around us, cumulonimbus collapsing in the distance like slowing spinning tops. The last thing we wanted was to get stuck in the mud, but incredibly we haven’t seen a drop of rain. It’s a buzz all right.
A big truck arrives from the north. As we’re out watching the storm and taking photographs the driver approaches, his adrenalin-fuelled grin almost as wide as the brim of his cowhide hat. He tells us his story:
“We’re coming down from Roma and the rain got so hard we really needed to stop. But we couldn’t – there’s nowhere to pull over, and if we stopped on the road someone would run up our arse, so we had to keep going. Then we came up behind an oversize load! Oh, it was dangerous, man!” He’s shaken, but clearly excited, and is taking photos of the distant storm with his mobile phone so his mates will believe him.
Then I notice the signpost 50 metres away and think what a fine photo it would make. I wander over and line up the shot, and just milliseconds before the shutter clicks a thunderbolt pierces the grey sky in the distance directly behind the Lighting Ridge sign. It was so nearly a perfect storm photo!
Continuing our journey we see the aftermath of the storms. It’s been rare on our journey to see standing water at the edge of the roads, and so often we’ve been in country that’s crying out for rain. When we reach St George the sun is shining – it’s the calm after the storm. The main road into the town centre is closed as the fire service remove fallen trees from the power lines and the cafes and food shops have closed because there’s no power.
We were experiencing mixed emotions. It was exciting to be almost home for Christmas, and to be setting up this big surprise for Ella’s family who thought we were still thousands of kilometres away in Western Australia. But the excitement was tempered with sadness because we knew our big trip was nearly finished. Still, we were all set to spring our Christmas Day surprise, after we visited just one last National Park.
A little green nugget hanging off the main mass of the Great Dividing Range, Bunya Mountain sticks out of the surrounding farmland like a cool, soothing emerald. We take the road that winds up from Dalby, feeling the temperature drop as soon as we reach the steep slopes and switchbacks and disappear under the cover of trees. And what trees.
There are a select group of pine tree genera that are endemic to Australia and the Bunya Pine is one of these. I’ve often felt that introduced species such as the common plantation pine from California, pinus radiata, look out of place in Australian landscapes. Perhaps it’s because they remind me of the photos of overdressed Outback pioneers posing for photos in their Sunday best despite 40ºC heat – they often seem bedraggled and parched. The Bunya Pines are clearly at home here, though, and their conical domed crowns pepper the hillsides.
From our campsite among the trees at the top of the hill we see storms passing to the east and west, lighting displays that seem to be at the same altitude as we are, yet they miraculously steer clear of us and we stay dry. In the daytime we tread a few of the bushwalks through the rainforests in the gullies and across the distinctive and curious-looking ‘grassy balds’ – open grass clearings on the hillsides that are the result of centuries of bushfires.
We manage to avoid the two recognised hazards of the area, being bitten by ticks and getting hit on the head by pine cones falling out of the trees. If that sounds completely ridiculous then consider this. The cones are reputed to grow up to the size of a football and can weigh two or three kilos, and the nuts that grow in the cones are as big as brazil nuts! Try sprinkling them on your cereal. Of course, they were a popular source of food for indigenous Australians who came to the mountains to gather them. They ate the nuts raw, toasted or apparently buried them in mud for several months to improve their taste.
On our walks we keep our eyes peeled for any of these immense cones in the undergrowth. They aren’t produced every year, though, so it looks like 2009 wasn’t a good year for pine cones. It was a good year for us, though – a year of exploration and discovery. We ventured beyond the big snake draught excluder of the Great Dividing Range to places we’d often never even read about. We dispelled the myth of the Outback as a singular entity, went out into the country and realised that it is so much more: it is a continent of diversity. Perhaps it doesn’t have the mystique of Asia or the overt cultural manifestations of Europe, maybe much of it is arid and unforgiving and groaning under the weight of its own stereotypes, but there are a remarkable range of landscapes to experience. Yet, after 32 blog posts, five months and 25 000 kilometres travel, and countless breathtaking views there are still many more landscapes that we didn’t see, which is just as well because it gives us the excuse to get out to see them on future trips.
Thanks for taking the time to read. I’ll put together a contents page for the final post here, with links to all the posts for easy navigation.
We gazed briefly at the murky green water of the Darling River from a bridge in the centre of Wilcannia. It was hard to reconcile the black and white photos of paddle steamers and rowing regattas on the interpretative signboards with the little swampy pools in front of us.
The 1500 km long Darling River is the fourth longest river in the land and is part of the Murray-Darling river system. Before there were roads and cars, trucks and trains, it was this river system that really opened up the Outback for settlers, providing a water source and enabling paddle steamers to ferry goods out of the countryside. Towns like Wilcannia, once known as the Queen City of the West, sprouted along the banks. But they’ve wilted now.
Unfortunately rivers aren’t always predictable on the driest inhabited continent – and the fortune of the town has mirrored the ebbing and flowing of the water. The steamers stopped operating between the two world wars, and the Darling was frequently unnavigable when it was open to traffic; it dried up forty-five times between 1885 and 1960. Drought hasn’t been the only problem, though. Too much water is syphoned out for irrigation, it is polluted by runoff from agricultural land, and because the whole catchment sits across state boundaries, it’s fallen prey to political wrangling. It makes for a great case study for getting rid of a whole layer of government! In 2007 the World Wildlife Fund named the Murray-Darling one of the “world’s top ten rivers at risk.” With any luck the Murray-Darling Basin Authority that was formed in late 2008 to provide a single agency for the system’s management will lead to an improved future.
We lurched back onto the dirt to follow upstream the flow of the Darling, the white flour-like bulldust sand exploded under our tyres as if we were driving through a minefield. Although we were passing through pastoral land, there were few signs of life. It was blindingly bright, with scant vegetation to soften the screaming sun.
Since moving to Australia I’ve often looked at a certain page on the map and wondered about one of the towns marked on the Darling. Many other places along the river took names based on the indigenous languages, or were named for prominent people of the era, but this one has the same name as the town where I grew up in England – Louth. It’s hardly unusual for colonialists flung far from their home (and unlikely to ever return) to seek comfort in naming their new patch of dirt for their old one. Australia’s full of such place names. Yet as this name is so familiar, and I have a keen interest in historical geography – how could I stay away?
I sought connections between my sleepy hometown Louth, nestled with its Georgian architecture, soaring church spire and markets at the base of the Lincolnshire Wolds, and this Outback Louth. Of course I knew that the Australian Louth would look quite different: one thousand years newer at least, it would be small, down at heel and stuck to its source of life – the river – like a limpet. Dirt roads would lead in from all directions and only a short central section through the settlement would be bitumen sealed.
I wanted to find out more about the naming. Had the founder chosen Louth simply to remind him of home or was it aspirational; had he hoped to recreate a bustling market town on the banks of the Darling?
Like Wilcannia, there’s not much left of Louth. The solid square-cornered brick house that is the former post office speaks of past prosperity, although there’s none of the sandstone splendour we’d seen downstream. Apparently there were many pubs in town at one time, but now there’s just Shindy’s Inn. It seems like the place to find out more about the local history.
When we get there it’s empty, but open. Clad in corrugated iron, it has the hallmarks of an Outback Pub. In all three rooms photos, jokes and poems are plastered like wallpaper. We get chatting to the woman who runs the pub and discover that she and her husband left a farm to take on the pub. The drought moved them on, but they’re glad they made the decision. She doesn’t seem too interested in my historical fascination, so I start inspecting the walls.
As I scan the faded photos of floods and droughts and the halcyon days when steamers were loaded with bale upon bale of wool from the surrounding farms, I wonder if I can see something behind these images, read something between the lines. Back in Lincolnshire they stopped using the little 11-mile canal at the beginning of the last century. First it was closed for the duration of the First World War, and then in 1920 a massive flood hit the town claiming 23 lives and damaging the infrastructure. That was the death knell. I guess that it would have become unviable by then anyway, out competed by train and truck. And that’s precisely what happened to the Darling at this end of the world only a few years later. Compared with the Louth Navigation, shipping on the Darling was massive and its steamer- towed barges could manage the same load as twenty of today’s semi-trailers. Such tonnage would have dwarfed the British boats.
And then I see him. In a small frame on the wall amongst the other bits and pieces, hardly in pride of place, is a Victorian photographic portrait, sepia tone but less weathered by the sun than some of the photos from this decade. I immediately know who it is – Thomas Matthews, the founder of this town. He’s posing, sitting upright with a stern and serious look on his face. It’s the same expression that has convinced generations of people that Victorians had no sense of humour. At this point I’d like to be able to report that the image in the photo winked at me and whispered the name of a pub or a street in my hometown, but I don’t look into his eyes, I move on to read the inscription below:
“Thomas Matthews, known as the King of Louth. Born in County Louth, Ireland.”
Oh, yes. County Louth, Ireland.
Reaching a fork in the road, where the Eyre and Lincoln highways meet in a dry and empty landscape, we see a cluster of large concrete water tanks daubed in bright colours and writing. It seems that each year the winner of the local football competition celebrates their victory with paintbrushes. We both experience a slightly odd feeling: a feeling of familiarity, a feeling that we’ve been here before.
And we have. Eighteen months ago we spent a few weeks driving to and around South Australia. Port Augusta looked quite different this time. What seemed a bit run down a year and a half back now seems like a bustling metropolis – not because it’s grown, or because we’ve seen so much since then, but because with a population of 14 000 it’s the biggest town we’ve seen since Albany. The sight of a supermarket can make one giddy, but while Port Augusta proves a useful place to stock up on supplies, we’re drawn to another oasis: Mt Remarkable National Park.
It’s a gem of a place, 50 km south of Port Augusta, and a short distance east of the Stuart Highway (the road from Adelaide to Darwin). Explorer Edward John Eyre named the mountain in 1840 due to the “lofty way it towered above the surrounding hills.”
Our memories from our last trip here were so fond that we wanted to come again. Nestled at the foot of the southern Flinders Ranges, Mt Remarkable National Park is a wildlife haven with great walking tracks that run up along the ridges and through the valley, and gnarly old Red River Gums that tower over the picturesque campground.
You might expect that after the novelty of the last few months it would seem somehow less interesting, yet it had actually changed for the good. It was much greener, the river was flowing slowly and birds and wallabies were making the most of this in the driest state in the country.
We just had time to climb up to Black Range lookout. From this lofty point we looked west out over parched fields to the Spencer Gulf.
Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race recounts his 1938 journey as a crew member on a Finnish four-masted barque, one of about a dozen that made the voyage from Europe to Australia and back collecting cargoes of grain from the south and trying to do it in the fastest time possible. The book is a vivid and humorous account of the experience of living and working on these ships – as the title suggests they were on the verge of disappearing into history, overtaken by war and modern technology. Their destination – the source of the grain – was here in the Spencer Gulf of South Australia. Ports still line the Gulf, today, although they don’t seem to be thriving. We don’t hang around to find out, though, because we’re heading inland, weaving through the ranges, along dirt road shortcuts and past tiny rural settlements.
Any doubt about the continued role of grain in this part of the world is dispelled once we steer inland. It isn’t the sight of silos sticking up on the horizon like churches in rural England, or any other visible evidence of harvest, but the smell that brings it home. I’ve never smelt wheat in the air so strongly as in Peterborough South Australia – it’s like being dropped in a giant biscuit barrel.
A sign on the edge of town reminds me a little of the Royal Family – just as they changed their name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor in 1917 to sound a little less Germanic, so Petersburg became Peterborough a year later. That’s not the only thing that reminds me of the monarchy, though. There’s a faded glory to the place that suggests its role has diminished in recent times.
Peterborough was once a rail hub. Three different rail gauges converged here and an unusual turntable was built that catered for them all. The end of the steam age, the change to a standard gauge, and the rationalisation of rail services led to demise of this town. Today there’s a steam heritage museum for enthusiasts.
A little bit of polish and this whole place could be a living museum. The crumbling federation architecture makes it feel like a coma-town rather than a ghost-town. There are several cafes, shops and pubs along the main street through the town centre, but there’s clearly been a contraction in business since well before the GFC. Bright new shop signs indicate those that still trade, but they’re probably outnumbered by those that might as well be mirages to weary nomads – signs are up, but upon arrival it’s clear the business shut down long ago.
After Peterborough we return to long straight roads, sea views a distant memory, as we head towards the iconic mining town, Broken Hill. I was expecting something like the bland new town of Mt Isa, visited near beginning of our trip, however Broken Hill’s history radiates from the sun-baked colonial architecture in the town centre. It’s impossible to walk for 50 metres without stumbling across a heritage sign showing a 19th century view of the street with an explanation of its significance.
Unfortunately we’ve hit town on a Sunday and several of the attractions we were hoping to visit are closed. A trip out to the Sculpture Symposium is well worth the detour, though. A walking trail winds through the arid landscape to a viewpoint that looks back to town, and against this backdrop sit a dozen sculptures, created by a number of international artists invited here in 1993 to work massive sandstone blocks quarried nearby. It’s a beautiful way to see the desert, the artwork blending so well with its surroundings.
Back in town it’s impossible to forget what Broken Hill is famous for – many of the street names echo the source of its wealth. They must be useful reminders for high school students learning geology or chemistry: turn left off Crystal Street onto Oxide Street, cross over Argent Street, keep going until you get to Mica Street, then turn left again and cross Sulphide and Bromide streets, before you get to Garnet Street. Once here turn left, pass Cobalt Street and walk to the end of the road. Do you recognise the view? Yes, that’s right, you’re back where you started.
So, back to the journey… back to Western Australia…
It had to happen. It was inevitable. If someone had told us before our trip that this was going to happen, we wouldn’t have been surprised. There’s no way we could drive all the way around Australia and not have this happen. The only surprise was the time of day: we would have expected it early in the morning or late in the afternoon – but it’s only 2pm.
Given the high probability of this occurrence, we came prepared. Tucked behind the car seats is a folding army surplus shovel: a tool to ease the problem. And now here I am, shovel in hand, standing at the side of the road, 30 kilometres east of Esperance. Hesitating.
There are over 200 species of marsupial in Australia, and many of them are Kangaroos or Wallabies. In the wild they generally give humans a wide berth, but they’re a serious hazard around roads. Wherever you drive outside the towns and cities, marsupial remains – large, small and in various stages of decomposition – litter the verges.
This dull windy afternoon, as we were making our way along a pine tree lined road towards Cape Le Grand National Park, a medium-sized Western Grey Kangaroo sped from the shelter of the trees on the left, into view and into our path, just metres ahead. Drivers can crash when they swerve to avoid creating roadkill. But a big roo can damage a vehicle and its occupants in an accident. So what did I do?
It happened so quickly. Instinct told me to swerve, but instinct isn’t as fast as a two tonne Land Rover in fifth gear. Like two people in a corridor that can’t decide which side to pass each other, we collided. I tried to go left – the direction the roo had come from – but it did the same, pivoting to hop back off the road, to no avail. It disappeared below our sightline; there was a hard clunk against the massive protective roo bar, followed by a scream from Ella. Shocked and horrified we pulled over to the side of the road. In the mirror I saw the poor animal flailing on the roadside, so we raced back to see if there was anything we could do.
Chest heaving, the roo lay stretched out on the verge stunned, eyes open, incapacitated. It wasn’t dead. I looked for signs of a Joey that might have fallen from a pouch, but it looked like the roo was male. A line of blood at the base of his thick tail didn’t bode well. A broken tail would render it immobile if it survived – a sure death sentence. Scenarios flit through my mind. Should I whack it with the shovel and end the suffering quickly? Or maybe the damage isn’t too bad. Should we take him to a wildlife carer? How would we even find one of those anyway?
Our mobile phone had coverage, so I waited at the end of the line as the Ranger at the National Parks headquarters in Esperance tried to find details for a wildlife carer. It felt futile, but we felt we had to try. How could we fit him in the car? Ella began to move things to make room.
Then I heard the sound of crunching gravel. I ran over. The roo’s back legs were pushing and struggling. But it was spinning in circles on the floor. Death throes.
The Ranger came back on the line.
OK, I think I can find someone for you.
Don’t worry, it’s too late. It’s died.
We drove on quietly, subdued by the event.