Saturday, April 30, 2011

1 May 2011 - Koramba Cotton, NSW

Sunday afternoon in the sun, about twenty eight degrees. I have just erected the side shade awning, mainly to give me some privacy and establishing a greater sense of permanence.

Chris and his fellow workers were out the door just before seven thirty just like any other day, as they will be tomorrow, the national Labour Day holiday. Twelve to thirteen hour days, seven days a week, until the harvesting is done with; Chris is prepared to hang in there and after the few full days he has already managed, I am sure my husband will do so just as well as the young bucks he is working beside.

His team consists of three backpackers; an Englishmen, an Irishman and a German, and of course himself. His supervisor is a chap probably more senior than Chris, or at least one that has been left out in the sun to mature more than him. There appear to be three women workers; an aboriginal woman of middle years working the modules as is he, one driving as the errand fetch-it, and another in the weighbridge office whom Chris believes to be the manager, Daryl’s, wife. Otherwise the whole affair is a very much a male operation. It is quite possible that there are many more women working in the gin, a place that Chris is not likely to actually enter.

The farm is owned by an elderly American, who is currently here with his daughter. From some papers and a plan that Chris has to carry with him at work, I gleaned the following facts last night:

  • The cultivated or cropped area of the farm is 15,807.16 acres (or 6,397.07 hectares).
  • Chris started work in Field No.20 which has an area of 299.98 acres (or 121.4 hectares)
  • He then moved on to work in Field No. 24 with an area of 157.4 acres (or 63.7 hectares)
  • Today he was expecting that their team would be moving to Field No. 1 with an area of 329.88 acres (or 133.5 hectares)
I find the size of these areas just mind boggling!

I am also reminded of a comment that Daryl made when he came to visit us just after we arrived. I asked if the recent floods had impacted on the operation. He said it had, but in a positive way. They had lost 1,000 acres of sorghum, but the plus side was that the extra water had been able to be let into the irrigated channels from the outside flooded zone and as a result, they expected a bumper crop of cotton.

No doubt the American will be rubbing his hands together as he watches the trucks trundle through the weighbridge.

My own routine is coming together and so the next weeks will just have an element of sameness. I like patterns to my day when I am alone, with my little disciplines and ways, especially when so much of the days to come could otherwise be lonely and boring.

This morning I ventured into the “laundry” here. One look at the washing machine, table and floor told me that there was much to be done before the washing of our clothes and linen could be started upon. I cleaned out the machine, a relatively modern extra capacity machine that has been treated cruelly. The lid and bowl surrounds were disgusting with dirt and the receptacle at the top of the agitator has washing powered cemented into it; I decided to return another day with a skewer or spade to sort that out. Otherwise it is an excellent machine and did what it should in a timely fashion. I collected the rubbish and litter from the floor, walls and table and deposited that in the rubbish drum beside our camp, then swept the floor with our broom, and only hope the broom will not have been ruined. I then scrubbed the table and the floor in a rather haphazard fashion leaving both however in a much improved state. Perhaps no one else will notice, but I certainly will!

I next attacked the camp or rather the car park on the side of which we are camped. Plastic bag “glove” over one hand, and bag in the other, I walked around gathering empty (and surprisingly in some cases, full) cans and bottles of liquor, wrappers and cardboard beer cartons, and all sorts of other litter you really don’t need to know about. That too all went in to our drum. I will have to get Chris to ask the supervisor when and if someone actually comes around on a regular basis to empty this, or we may be faced with over spilling garbage in our “back yard”.

I am working on the premise that if people encounter a clean environment, they are more likely to keep it that way. There appears to be no roster here, and apparently the communal ablutions are in a disgusting state. Obviously Diego keeps strictly to his culinary obligations and is not the all rounder “house-keeper”. But then why should a 5-Star chef be anything else?

Ten minutes to ten; time for a coffee, and then I set off in my sturdy shoes and sunhat along the road with the intention of reaching the McIntyre River. Just north of our entrance I came upon another track running parallel to our own route in, and turned into that out of curiosity just as a big truck bore down on me with a great cloud of dust. I decided at that instant that I would abandon my plan to walk along the road, but instead would explore this side track. I am so glad I did because I have now found a route for the walk I shall take on a regular basis, an hour there and back, leading through the scrub adjacent to the cotton fields or rather the banks of the irrigation channels that double as farm roadways, passing through areas well populated by a variety of birds and flowers and emerging at a complex pumping system on the banks of the river originally sort.

My other options of walks included driving through to Boomi and walking circuits of that town’s wide and deserted streets, or walking along the road being subjected to dust and the unlikely danger that anything untoward might occur. The other option which, though obvious on the face of it, is to walk up through the back of the farm past the workshops and up to the fields, however there are signs everywhere about "authorised access only" and the need to have safety gear, and also the speeding farm vehicles stirring up their own lot of dust. This track with little evidence of use, but still within the confines of the farm boundary, although I am sure not included in the statistics above, will serve me well.

As I logged on, I learned that both my sons are here in Australia, just for two days on business. It is unfortunate that we cannot hook up, even for a drink as I did with Kit and his wife in Rome one sunny afternoon nearly three years ago. The reality is, it would be easier for me to catch a plane to Auckland to see them than travel to Canberra for that brief encounter. And even stranger still, Larissa and her family will be in Brisbane this same month, as they disembark for a day from their cruise. All three of our children will have come to this country and we will miss them all. Such is life!

Friday, April 29, 2011

30 April 2011 - Koramba Cotton, NSW

The end of the month already and another closer to winter, although you would not think it today. Again there is a breeze that is disturbing my papers on the outside table, but sending the cool air through the caravan that has been closed up a good part of the day. The thermometer inside showed 26 degrees.

Ready for a day's work
A follower of this blog has suggested with great concern that we might be needing food parcels or some road kill delivered, given the scant provisions available in the near vicinity. I had been pondering the destiny of the road kill this morning, but had fancied it was rescued for dog tucker rather than laborers’ fare. But there you are. In this land, anything goes!

I left this morning just minutes after Chris had walked out the door with his Labour Solution’s hat, eski and fluro vest, and passed him and his work mates still waiting by the gate as I drove past, hopefully not showering them with too much dust. No doubt I will hear about that tonight.

The road from Boomi to Goondiwindi is not as bad as I recalled from the other evening’s trip; it helps to be unhindered by a two and a half ton trailer. The roos bounding across the road were as plentiful if not more so than on Wednesday, so it seems to be a fallacy that they are on the move only at dawn and dusk. It makes one ever vigilant, especially when one is already dodging potholes, and accommodating any traffic that may dare to approach or pass. Flocks of birds were also in attendance; I was not short of company. The last thirty or so kilometers of the seal is right across the road in the normal fashion and cannot be faulted except for those patches that have been undermined by floods. I was too hasty with my criticism.

I arrived in town before nine thirty, filled the vehicle with diesel, tried a dress on in Millers (as one cannot go to town without a little temptation) but did not buy it, went to the supermarket and bought dozens of canned and dry goods, vegetables and fruit. At times I seemed to be taking the last of what was on the shelf, and I fear that some poor people will go without because a greedy customer came and took the last can of baked beans, the last three yoghurt powders, the last Bok Choy cabbage, the last bag of carrots, et cetera. Guilty as charged!

I then sought advice on where to have the gas bottle filled and drove to the edge of town to the hardware and timber depot where that matter was efficiently dealt with, albeit at a rather hefty price.

Then back in to town to the book exchange which had not been open earlier, a chat with the woman at the counter, a visit to Crazy Clarks for some haberdashery (particularly to fasten Chris’ work hat – the regulation hats come in one size which is always bound to be either too big or too small), and then on the road.

I chose to return by the northern route, west, north of the Queensland border and the McIntyre River, then turn at Talwood and come directly south to our camp in New South Wales. Tomtom, who had been keeping me company as well as the wildlife, told me that the route was only six kilometres and four minutes longer. I also had registered that most of the route (except for the last twenty kilometres) was along the Barwon Highway, heading toward St George. Such significance should surely render the road superior to the other one I had travelled in the morning.

And sure enough, it mainly was. The first half of the trip was on wide tar seal, so wide that it was divided with a centre line and adorned with lines on both side edges as well. While it was uneven as most Australian roads tend to be, other than the very major highways that city slickers travel, it allowed me a steady 100 kilometres an hour. Arriving at Tobeah, a (real) store, a pub, a clutch of grain silos and a few houses, I saw a sign that confirmed that the road to Bungunya was "Open". Thank goodness for that! Not sure where that was, I imagined it well beyond my turn off, so went on, slower and carefully negotiating a narrower road which had obviously suffered flood damage. Then I was at Bungunya, or at least that settlement was on a short road to the south. I turned in to it to have a look see. More silos, a few houses, a very dead once-been store, a shiny Australia Post letter box, and a very pleasant rest area. I stopped and ate most of my lunch, then set off once more, cognoscente that I had fresh food on board with rather inadequate cold storage.

This time the sign was one of those portable standing electric ones, advising that the road to Talwood was open but great care should be taken. At this stage I was thinking; OMG, if this is the highway, will the link road / track through to Koramba be open? Will I have to turn back and travel the eighty or so kilometres as well as the Boomi road of a further one hundred!

Again, as its neighbour, Talwood was a little off the main road. I drove into the leafy street of this very quiet place, noted a store, a modern church, a collection of road works vehicles parked up with no one about, and very poor signage as to the road I should take. Logic told me that I should pass straight through the town, at right angles to Barwon Highway, however this upset Tomtom greatly. I turned him off to shut him up and stopped at the store, entering the cool dark and dingy interior. The proprietor came from the back and greeted me warmly, with the ever friendly “Darl”. I asked her directions and she indicated that I had missed the road back up the street (Tomtom had been right insisting I turn around). I glanced around the shop and told her that I would be back some day soon, and told her why. Here I believe I could buy bread, a newspaper and other fresh stores should we require them before my next excursion to the big smoke in say, about ten days.

The first ten kilometres south was on a one way sealed road, straight edged with wide gravel or dirt skirts for pulling over if one was unlucky enough to be confronted by the large rattly trucks I hear pass the camp all hours of the day. Then I came to road works, massive road works; a set of traffic lights and all manner of machinery presumably remaking the road that had suffered major flood damage. Then came the bridge over the McIntrye River, and having left Queensland once again, the terrible bumpy gravel road of just one kilometre before I pulled in to our gateway.

It was about one when I unloaded the gas bottle and the bags and boxes of groceries, and took me at least another hour to stow everything in some orderly fashion. We should now be right for a while and poor Chris can be given packed lunches that will seem familiar fare.

The mechanics dog came over to see me when I had finished; he came yesterday when I was sitting here typing and thrust his head onto my knee which was not terribly helpful since I use the keyboard on my lap. He is very affectionate but like all farm dogs, knows that houses (and caravans) are out of bounds.

And of Chris? He completed his second long day last night, arriving home at twenty past eight. He is bearing up, in fact quite into the swing of it. However after such a late dinner, there wasn’t much time before collapsing into bed. We have been spoiled for too long with this retirement business; I guess this is just a reality check.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

29 April 2011 - Koramba Cotton, NSW

Again sitting out under the awning, with the sun shining and the light breeze keeping the temperature relatively cool. Today I am feeling a little freer; knowledge accounts for that!

The local co-op
Chris arrived home last night at ten to eight. I had been half expecting him from about five thirty, but having no precedent, really did not have a clue. Dinner was resting in the crock pot ready for his return, and at seven o’clock I put the potatoes and broccoli on, so dinner was still quite edible when he did at last arrive. The headlights came in to camp and swung around by the caravan. I opened the door to welcome him in, wondering what state he would be in. I was relieved to se that he was not exhausted, tired, yes, but not crawling in the door suggesting we leave at once.

Boomi's busy streets
He had had an interesting day however did remark that the work would become rather monotonous once the initial days had passed. He had spent most of the day in two separate areas working in a team of four, preparing the cotton modules for transport. The modules are four sided crates, with neither top nor bottom. The harvesting machines drop the cotton in to the crate, dropping a fair amount which has to be scooped up manually. Then an operator uses a pressing machine to compact the cotton down firmly, in the same way a wool bale is “pressed”, the men pass and tie ropes around the module and then finish it with a tarpaulin over the top. The job requires a lot of bending which Chris has experienced all his painting life, and stamina. They work twelve hour days, with really no stop for lunch or tea break, just grabbing something from their eskis in between modules. The workers are mainly back packers, but also include middle aged people who make this an annual job. Chris was picked up from the first location and taken to a second where they were short handed. He was amazed how big the operation is.

Looks like their faith is a bit rusty.

He was relieved that I had been able to get internet access and was pleased to hear that I was willing to stay here for several weeks or at least as long as he felt capable of doing the work. The work will be continuous, no allowance for weekends or public holidays, the only break to be taken if the cotton gets rained on and then only until it has dried.

Needless to say, after a late dinner and shower, he fell in to bed and slept like a log.

The alarm went off this morning at six; this time we were not awake earlier waiting in anticipation and anxiety that it may not go off. (As you can imagine, the alarm feature on the clock had yet to be tried)  I had made his lunch, a rather weird mix of bits I could gather, the night before, and so after breakfast, empting the loo (a job I am not easily capable of alone), he was off to catch his transport to the job at the “garage” gate.

Today is yet another statutory holiday in Queensland; show day. So there was little point in traveling back across the border in to Goondiwindi.  Moree, a few kilometers more seemed to be a bit more challenging, especially since I have no knowledge of the road, and so my plan was to go into Boomi to the Co-op there and stock up on just a few basics, namely bread, meat, fruit and vegetables. The Moree tourist brochure said the store was open seven days a week, from seven in the morning.

So I set off in the landcruiser, a vehicle I have not driven too often, along the terrible road to “town”. Actually it wasn’t too bad but then I wasn’t towing, but I was surprised how many sections of the road were flood damaged, the whole surface of the road just torn up by the waters. There was little traffic, just a road train and another large truck. I slowed and pulled to the side as one must, and felt quite confident about the experience, one that people speak of in hushed voices. However in all fairness, the trucks were not traveling very fast.

Should have checked whether they had bottled water at the Co-op.

I drove up the main street of Boomi and saw the pub, all closed and quiet, as was the entire town. I drove a whole circuit around the town, looking for the co-op or even evidence of life, until about to do a third, I spotted the sign beyond a fenced section. I pulled in to join at least another four vehicles and realized that this was where the entire population was for the morning, or at least those who were not out working in the cotton. Bear in mind that Boomi is situated in New South Wales, so one could expect this Friday morning to be the normal hustle and bustle.

The wide streets of Boomi
Four ladies, all looking like the PTA or the Country Women’s Institute, greeted me from behind the counter, a hole in the wall such as the tea serving counter in a public hall. The wares were scattered around the shop; a shelf with a few cans, an upright fridge with a pumpkin, some milk, half a dozen oranges, some eggs, et cetera. You get the picture? Sometimes you strike caravan parks like this, offering standard provisions but in reality, incredibly scanty. The bread display rack was in front of me, empty. “Can we help you?", they chorused. 
I looked around and said, “Umm, do you have any bread?” 
“Oh, yes, was the reply, we have lots in the freezer.” 
Then one remembered there was some fresh bread on the shelf behind her in the kitchen. And I am thinking, this is just not going to do it!!! I left with two loaves of bread and two mandarins, which should see Chris right for his lunch tomorrow. He will have to face a tuna potato bake tonight, with the last of the salad. This bounty of goods cost me $9.60 plus the diesel to travel twenty five kilometers or so.                              

While my quest had been rather unsuccessful, I took advantage of the fact that I was driving a 4WD, was wearing sturdy shoes, had my camera, had not dressed to the nines for town and had no time limits on my return to camp.

I parked and walked up one side of the main street and down the other. There was a woman in the playground with a small child, and I had missed the camping ground where about four or five caravans were parked. I have no idea what they will find to do in Boomi unless they give the National Harvest people a call and go and join Chris. There is a swimming pool here which offers an alternative to those artesian baths in Moree, so perhaps they will spend their days soaking up the sun in the waters of Boomi.
Fields of cotton
Cotton on a bush

On my way back out to Karamba, I noted two dead kangaroos on the side of the road that had not been there when I drove in, and passed or was overtaken by at last four other 4WD vehicles. I stopped by the Boomi River and went for a wander about three hundred metres up stream. The screeching of the sulphur crested cockatoos told me that I was not welcome, but it was lovely being out there away from the sound or view of anyone or anything (apart from the birds). I stopped also at the Gnoura Gnoura Creek nearer home and listened to the birds, and then pulled in to the road leading to the Gin, but stopped at the no entry signs. I had a complete sense of freedom and peace, and felt ready to take on the road to Goondiwindi tomorrow which I will have to do whether I still feel the same or not. One has to eat!
A google search has told me that we are 2.28 kilometres south of the Booning Crossing into Queensland, 107 kilometres from Moree and 111 kilometres from Goondiwindi. The centre of the universe!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

28 April 2011 - Koramba Cotton, NSW

Who would have thought so much could happen in twenty four hours but then life is like that; one minute you are there, the next upside down. Ask anyone that has experienced life! Ask me! On second thoughts,  don’t. I’ll stick just to this story for now.

Yesterday we woke to another beautiful day, and all the better for knowing that business was as usual and we could move on with matters that needed to be addressed.

Firstly Chris rang the warranty people and in a manner that one comes to expect from all those involved in insurance, they said the repair of the speedometer was not covered. Strange that it had been the first time it happened, however there you are. Chris read through the fine print of the policy and had to concede that they were right.

Next he telephoned the Harvest Labour 0800 number we had gleaned from a little publication that is put out annually detailing the areas, the what’s and when’s of Australian harvests. They gave him a number in Toowoomba to ring, however we thought that was a fair way away to go and were actually seeking something further from the coast, closer to our current locality, so he rang a few number from the list the camp manager had given us. He was offered a couple of days immediately, picking up sticks and throwing them on the back of a tractor. The fact that it was only two days did not excite him very much, nor probably the picking up of “sticks’. Others took messages and promised to follow up.

He decided that he would try the employment office down in town, so set off to find a garage, doing so successfully with the speedo problem quickly fixed for a very acceptable fee, getting himself a haircut but finding the employment people dealt only with those registered with Centrelink, the Australian Social Welfare Agency.

On his return he thought he would give the Toowoomba guy a call after all. It turned out that this chap, Dick, runs or manages the Toowoomba office of Labour Solutions, and had just come off the phone from a guy in Boomi who was wanting someone for an immediate start. It turned out that Dick and Chris were just a few months apart in age, and Dick had a soft spot for painting contractors, and that the whole event seemed too serendipitous to let pass, so we were emailed through forms to fill and directions.

While I was struggling to complete the forms on line, especially when the whole thing crashed, Chris shot down into the metropolis of Goondiwindi to purchase some steel cap boots and fill the tanks up with diesel. It turns out I should have given him a list for the supermarket as well, but then hindsight is a marvellous thing.

By the time he got back, having outlaid a substantial sum on the boots, and topped up his dwindling cellphone card, I had managed to send the “paperwork” back to Dick and see Al, the camp boss, to tell him we were leaving, despite the fact that I had been over in the morning to pay for a further night. Although having no contractual obligation to do so, he refunded us 80% of the days tariff and wished us well. By this time it was nearing four in the afternoon.

Finally packed up and hitched on, we called to post the tax form to Dick, then set off following the emailed directions. The directions stated things like, “after about ten kms, turn right”, “you will see some buildings”; nothing specific like, turn in to the road that points to St George and travel twelve and a half kilometres, then turn into the gateway where it says Koramba Cotton & Gin. In fact nowhere were we told that Chris would be working for Koramba Cotton & Gin. He didn’t even know what he was going to have to do until I read the email contents to him which I had furiously copied out on a scrap of paper.

The road from Goondiwindi to Boomi is 102 kilometres long, runs in long straight stretches west all the way, and is all sealed in some form or another. Imagine decorating a steep topped loaf with very runny icing. Some spreads over almost the width, but most runs down the sides, and in some cases only a very thin line is at the top. Such is the road to Boomi. It was the worst road we had pulled the caravan on so far. However it was quite wonderful; the sun was ahead and low, finally setting, we saw emus grazing on the remnants of a grain crop, and kangaroos bounding in graceful leaps across the road, while others stood in readiness or anticipation to see if the first would survive the dash. The landscape remained flat, some farmed for beef, and some cultivated for grain, but mainly the never ending fields, hundred of hectares of cotton which makes it appear as if it has just snowed. And as we have seen elsewhere since leaving Coonabarabran, the cotton fluff lies along the roadside as paper litter will if it is mowed by the council tractors, but so much more attractively.

When we reached the crossroads at Boomi where we had to turn right, the hazy outlines of unimpressive buildings appeared to our left, and so we turned away from Boomi with no further understanding of what kind of settlement we had missed. The directions from there were sketchy, and as the sun sunk lower and darkness grew, Chris questioned them. We seemed to be driving on and on to nowhere in a northerly direction. The Gin that was mentioned and was expected (by us) to be somewhere close to Boomi, did not appear and we still drove on. The road turned to dirt and finally we saw the turning up over a ramp toward some buildings. We had arrived at Koramba Cotton & Gin. We drove around behind the accommodation and kitchen buildings, carefully avoiding the gateway in to the machinery area, as instructed, and found a power box and our camp for however many days we should choose to stay.

Diego, the Italian cook, came over to greet us, and would have been happy to chat the evening away, however we needed what light was still barely left to set up, so excused ourselves. No sooner established and the kettle on, a knock came on the door. It was Daryl Haydon, the manager, to check us, or at least Chris, out. He has been manager of this huge extensive property for the last two and a half years, but “in cotton” for the last twenty, has an expansive personality and body to match. We invited him in and we all chatted for some time. This operation here is huge, and is not just the growing platform for the cotton, but the processing centre as well. The latter also does processing for several surrounding properties and is the main employer of the seventy five residents of Boomi (pronounced Boo – my). He promised to provide me with a booklet of facts and figures about the operation; I am looking forward to that, as I am sure you are too.

He told Chris that he would meet him down at the weighbridge office by the Gin at seven thirty in the morning. There would be the initiation process to be worked through and then he would give Chris an over view of the whole industry. Chris would be then sent out with a supervisor to start doing his job; as one of the ground crew responsible for making Cotton Modules ready for delivery to the Gin.

It was late and neither of us felt like setting to and preparing a grandiose meal. Furthermore, it had come to our attention that we were abysmally set up for living out here on the job. While we did have full diesel tanks for now, and we did have water and power supplied, our provisions were sadly lacking. I cooked eggs to accompany a can of baked beans, and checked out what I had to make a packed lunch for Chris the next day. Our bread resources were down to seven frozen slices, our fruit to one apple and one pear. This was indicative of the food stores generally.

Boomi is only twelve and half kilometers away on an absolute crappy road, but I can drive that if I have the vehicle. Today Chris has needed it; hopefully he can catch a lift with someone else tomorrow and I shall venture in to find out what the co-op store has to offer. Maybe cans of corned beef and rice as I have encountered in other remote parts of the world?

This morning we both woke way before the alarm went off, and were up, breakfasted and ready for his departure way before he needed to leave. I had a few outdoor tasks set to do, however Chris was able to get those sorted before he set off.

Our meat stores consist of four packs of sausages, one pack of bacon and two small chicken breasts. I have absolutely no idea when he will return today and so have pulled the crock pot out from under the bed and concocted a sausage stew, something a little reminiscent of the stews my sisters and I used to cook up by the creek over a wood fire when we were children at Kopaki. Hopefully he will be so busy telling me all the interesting things about his day, he won’t pause to critique the dinner.

This morning since his going, I have marveled at the fact that this is the first time in my life that I have sent my husband off to work and remained “at home’ as the little housewife, hand washed a few bits and pieces, prepared the dinner, chatted with Larissa on Skype and with Kyla by email, and taken the opportunity to case the joint.

Our camp for however long it takes
The farm gates
We are indeed at a work camp, a cluster of buildings occupied by twenty five single men who are here to work and not worry about the scruffiness of anything about their abode. I discovered the laundry, a shed in which a substantial washing machine sits, with no requirement to feed coins into. I also discovered the lid to the septic tank so Chris can empty our loo periodically. Needless to say I will not be saving the loo by squatting in the long grass. Even today with the men at work, Diego and another who speaks his language have been sitting up on their concrete pad, otherwise called a terrace, deeply involved with some board game, having greeted me with a friendly wave.

But most importantly for me, I have managed to get internet reception. This is something that Chris was very anxious about. I have business to deal with along with keeping up with emails, Facebook and anything else that takes my fancy, and had I had to be here for weeks or even months with no communication facility, we may have had to call this exercise short. It will also depend on how Chris copes with this very hard and heavy work in the fields. He may be fit and healthy, willing and with a brilliant work ethic, but there is a limit to everyone’s limits, especially when you are approaching 63 years of age!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

26 April 2011 - Rivergums Caravan Park, Goondiwindi, Queensland

As I start to write this, rain is falling on the caravan roof and darkness has closed around us even earlier than normal. We have passed another quiet day waiting for a gap in the extensive public holiday spate that is causing life to be put on hold.

Goondiwindi's Botanic Gardens
This morning we headed out to the Botanic Garden of the Western Woodlands, 25 hectares planted out in trees and plants native to the Darling Basin established in 1988, encompassing a small lake around an even smaller island. The park is very different from any other botanic gardens we have visited, a large grassed area with groups of various eucalypts, acacias , palms and a multitude of other trees with wonderful names like Coolibah Belah, Black Box, River Gums, Chincilla White Gum, Leopardwood, Yapunyah Myall, Lignum, Poplar Box Forest Gum, Blue Gum Carbeen, and on and on. We enjoyed our lunch sitting under the covered amphitheatre area, listening to the chirping of unidentified birds, and watched by arrogant magpies.

The Natural Heritage Water Park
The sun was shining brightly, in a huge open blue sky. We drove a circuit of the town, across a rather dubious mud track that caused Chris to query my navigation, and through the more industrial and commercial part of the town, across to the Natural Heritage Water Park. Covering an area of 210 hectares of parkland, this park features a 3.3 kilometre circuit for skiing and other water sports, a large barbeque and picnic area, and walks along and through the re-vegetated woodlands, natural and artificial wetlands. We walked along the edge of the “lagoon” which we believe to be the remnant of the original McIntyre River bed, however that remains unconfirmed because the geological history of this park was not made clear to us by way of interpretative panels or brochures.

Packed in like sardines
Our camp is full tonight with us all packed in like sardines. The last party to come in arrived in a 36 foot (or larger) bus, which is squeezed in close to us. I suspect that all parties are not entirely impressed with the arrangements here, however once booked and paid ….

We do believe we will head away from this camp tomorrow irrespective of how the day pans out. There are two other camps in town, so we do have options.

The weather forecast for tomorrow promises further showers, with minimum and maximum temperatures of 12 and 25 degrees respectively; much more pleasant than those experienced further south.

Monday, April 25, 2011

25 April 2011 - Rivergums Caravan Park, Goondiwindi, Queensland

A "don't-mess-with-me cactus

Alas we were too lazy to rise before dawn and travel the forty kilometres north to an ANZAC ceremony. Instead we hung about our camp in the roadside scrub far later than we would normally, reading and doing Sudoku puzzles, until we thought we had better hit the road again. The short drive this morning contrasted with the almost two hundred travelled yesterday.

The Information Centre was closed as expected, but also, unexpectedly, was to remain so all day. We found our way to the cheapest and most central of the three caravan parks in town; we had decided we would settle in and wait for life to restart here, to investigate work possibilities before any further thought of travelling on.

Rivergums is a compact park, sheltered and tired. There are four cabins all joined like a motel block, a dozen or more permanent vans, some occupied and then there was us. Since midday a few more people have come in, and some have left hoping for greener fields at the other two parks further out of town. We are parked on gravel, with a bucket underneath our grey water outlet, but on power, water and have internet reception unlike our camp last night.

After lunch we walked along the riverside pathway, a four kilometre concrete path along the levee (constructed to cope with an almost 11 metre rise), much of it in the shade of lovely trees, in the company of many varieties of birds and in view of the McIntyre River, a substantial waterway which will finally become the Darling River and reach the sea in South Australia.
We returned to camp walking back along the main streets discovering a well appointed town, served by all shops and services one might require, every one of which were closed with the exception of the service stations, video shops, Crazy Clarks (the cheapy shop, formally owned by New Zealand’s The Warehouse, "where every on gets a bargain") and the cinema.
Goondiwindi is yet another rural town, of just over 6,000 people, on the junction of six significant inland highways. It is also a major centre for agricultural production with the district producing and growing a diverse range of crops and fibres. The mainstays of the local economy are anything from wool and beef production through to the growing of cotton, sorghum and corn in the summer period. The winter crop growing season sees the planting of wheat, barley and chickpeas. It is the cotton industry we are targeting for work for Chris; it is the peak of the harvesting season. The manager of the park here gave us a list of names and numbers to call, so armed with that, along with enquiries at the employment agency which will reopen on Wednesday, plus probably knowledge gleaned from a tour of the industry tomorrow if the Information Centre is open, we hope to arrive at some clear idea of the lay of the land.

24 April 2011 - North Star Road Rest Area, NSW

Another glorious day in paradise, as they say. Clear skies and fresh temperatures spelling the beginning to a wonderful day. We were away out of Narrabri by about a quarter past nine, and heading for Moree.

The route was flat and long, having left Narrabri which sits at 240 metres above sea level, and descending to 212 metres to Moree. Moree is about one third larger again than Narrabri, at about 10,000 people and again is the centre of a rural community. Cotton and grain, including durum wheat, some for pasta manufacture, and canola, sunflower and safflower seeds for oil extraction are the main crops, along with the largest pecan orchard in the southern hemisphere. We were keen to investigate the possibility of a tour of either the latter or of the cotton industry, however this was not to be. Moree was shut and deserted but for the tourists passing through who were confronted with the same, and the workers in MacDonalds.

We stayed long enough to walk about the wide pleasant streets of the town and through the riverside parks which are expansive and numerous, parked to have lunch in one and then came on north.

This is not the first time we have been stymied by Easter or rather the inconvenience of a very long and strictly observed closed-shop-and-business holiday. You would think we would learn. While our preference is to seek work in Queensland rather than New South Wales, we were keen to learn of opportunities here, before crossing the border. We also will be faced with the matter of which direction to head once we reach Goondiwindi tomorrow, just forty or so kilometres north of where we have stopped for the night. Goondiwindi will, like Moree, still be closed for business tomorrow, it being the double whammy of Easter Monday and ANZAC day, and again the following day. Maybe we should stay in the scrub here for a couple of days until life recommences?

On a positive note however, Chris, who has been lamenting the performance of our landcruiser when it comes to towing our home-on-wheels, has been delighted how well it has performed on the flatter roads we have enjoyed since about Wellington (the rain drenched place I probably dissed unfairly). We have been getting roughly 5 kilometres per litre as opposed to the 4 kilometres per litre previously) he also acknowledges that this vehicle handles the dirt / gravel roads better than any other vehicle he has ever driven.

And also on this positive note, he spotted a lone emu on the roadside today, in time for me to see it too, as we sped past.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

23 April 2011 - Narrabri Showgrounds, NSW

Our last night at Narrabri, but who would have thought that we would have found it such a great place to stay! Tomorrow we will head north, toward Moree, just 100 kilometres away. Maybe we will be there tomorrow night, maybe beyond; who knows.

The day has been glorious in only the way the most perfect autumn day can be; cloudless, warm out of the wind, and a delight to be out in. Waking on such a day motivated us to get cracking. We gathered the pile of washing that had missed the hand washing two days before and headed for the Information Centre to find whether Narrabri boasted a laundry. Of course it does. It seems that every town has a laundry, unlike most New Zealand’s small towns. Actually it is the first time we have used a commercial coin operated laundry since arriving here in Australia, and we were pleasantly surprised to discover that the machines were only $1 more than those in camping grounds. We shot off to Coles and did some shopping, then back to the laundry, the wet and washed laundry back to camp and strung up on our network of lines and our collapsible rotary line, then we hung around until the sheets were dry.

Sawn Rocks standing upright
Soon done, we headed off again, this time back to the Mt Kaputar National Park, but this time on a road to the north of the park. Looking at a map of the park, I realised that the boundary is in the shape of one of those Thai warrior gods, shown in profile, with the spikes of their armour pointing out front and back, one leg lifted with knee bent, the other stretched out backwards. And so imagining that (if you can), yesterday’s expedition entered the belly cutting almost right across to his back. Today’s trip was to the neck, so that the “head” to the north lay to our right and the body to our left as we arrived.

Whether this makes sense or not, it was a lovely forty kilometre drive on the road that carries on across to Bingara and so on to Tamworth, where g.g.g. Uncle George’s ghosts still lurk, if one has a ken to travel that more obscure route. The plains stretched both sides and behind us as we drove north west, land cultivated for cotton closer to Narrabri, and farmed for beef as we closed in on the Nadewar Range, finally arriving at the Sawn Rocks car park.

lying down....
and neatly stacked by nature
A short walk along a sagging sealed path meandered through eucalypts, figs and ferns and took us to an observation platform offering stunning views of the intriguing rock formation jutting starkly from the bed of the Bobbiwaa creek. The Sawn Rocks, towering 40 metre high pillars, looking so like organ pipes in a huge church, are the result of slow and even cooling of molten rock, which enables individual crystals within the rock to align perfectly with each other. The erosion of the “organ pipes” is still occurring and there are piles of debris at the foot of the cliff, which tipped on their sides appeared like piles of logs, or in some cases, a staircase. I imagine that it would not be wise to hang about during wet weather.

We found a picnic table, easier said than done, given the crowds of visitors, mainly Easter holidaying families. After lunch, we headed back into Narrabri, stopped at the town, now quiet after the busy-ness of the morning, and walked up one side of the main street and down the other. We happened upon the front of a car, with registration number intact, resting against the street curb. It was as if someone had run in too close when parking, then on leaving, pulled away and not noticed that the whole front of the vehicle had come away. After marvelling at the amusing sight, we went on, but soon witnessed a couple of police cars arrive, whose occupants after much consultation, loaded it into one of the vehicles and drove off. Perhaps some person received a phone call and were asked if they were missing the front of their car?

The rest of the afternoon was spent in a leisurely fashion; Chris washed the land cruiser, and I read the newspaper, just as matters should be.

Friday, April 22, 2011

22 April 2011 - Narrabri Showgrounds, NSW

Today our oldest grandchild turns ten! How quickly the years have flown, and how scary that is, to think we are also that much older. How fortunate we are to be able to able to travel as we are, to have good health and have had the courage to take the great leap of this form of retirement.

The Nadewar Ranges
It is also Good Friday, and as such even more of a holiday for those about us. For us, it means little except that the world is closed until Wednesday; Wednesday because ANZAC Day falls on Easter Sunday this year, so there has to be an extra statutory holiday tacked on to the already long weekend. We are well stocked up, in a pleasant camp but would like to have the speedo system sorted. However …. c’est la vie.

This morning after a tardy breakfast, and packing lunch, we headed up in to the hills. The Mount Kaputar National Park is just forty or so kilometres east of us, in the Nadewar Ranges, another set of hills formed by volcanic activity between 17 and 21 million years ago. It stands out distinctively as does the Warrumbungle Range, because of the very flat plains around us.

Fascinating funghi
We drove the 59 kilometres to the very top of Mount Kaputar which is 1,510 metres above sea level. The temperature was somewhat colder than we had left down at our camp at Narrabri, but not altogether unpleasant. The views over the 51,000 hectares of the park and 10% of the entire state (on a clear day) were stupendous. There was haze about so the view was not quite as extensive as the brochures boasted, but we were still pretty impressed. We descended the mountain, and enjoyed our lunch at a picnic and simple camping area at Dawson Spring, just two kilometres further down.

 As we wended our way back out of the park, we called in to about three lookout points, all of which had short walks duly undertaken. The park is certainly very beautiful, however as Chris remarked as we stood looking out at the view at one point, this park is far more expansive and grand than the Warrumbungle National Park, but does not have the same level of intimacy.

Mount Kaputar National Park
We were back in our camp by mid-afternoon, and spent the rest of the afternoon alternating attempts to contact India to wish her a happy birthday, washing the caravan and cooking a pasta bake (obviously my turn to cook!).

All tasks were finally achieved, albeit backwards. And so as I finish this, having just popped up to the amenities (in the dark at just 7 p.m.) the stars are numerous in the sky and the temperature is a warm twenty two degrees in the van. We have decided to stay at least another night, beyond this one, but will plan beyond that when Sunday arrives.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

21 April 2011 - Narrabri Showgrounds, NSW

We woke this morning unscathed by either ants or any other invaders. The sun was shining, filtered through the gums close around us. We found in fact that we had not been alone during the night; another caravan touring party had installed themselves closer to the road, and a big truck even closer again. The party who had driven down past us in the night emerged from the bush behind us, in a smart ute, looking quite harmless. We decided that we would be quite happy to stay here again, but would probably bury ourselves even deeper in the bush, as the ute occupant obviously had.

The route north, a mere twenty five kilometres, continued across the flat plains through the Pillaga Scrub. As over the past few days, we have seen only dead kangaroos and discarded rubber tyres on the road side rather than live wildlife. As we entered Narrabri, we were pulled over by Police in to a road check. Chris was asked to count to ten over the breathalyser; we were truly the most unlikely offenders, especially at nine o’clock in the morning. Apparently however, they do find some who are still under the influence from the night before!

Chris had been struggling with the electric plug connection from the cruiser to the caravan over the past few weeks, and yesterday when it finally broke, decided it was in urgent need of repair. So our first stop in Narrabri was the Information Centre to inquire after a caravan repair person. The girl there was willing to assist but found that there was no such specialist in town, but gave us the name of the one auto electrician in town, a business we had passed as we came in, Busy Bee Auto Electrics. We topped up with water from the official place behind the Centre, then returned to the outskirts of town to consult with the Busy Bees. Tim was in the middle of his meat pie but said that if we were happy to wait, he could definitely change the plug. That done with no delay, Chris asked him to check that the battery system was charging correctly. And that threw the cat among the pigeons. It turns out that Chris’s concerns over the past few weeks have been well justified. The isolator between the two vehicle batteries was faulty. This meant that the only time the vehicle’s auxiliary battery was being charged was when we were plugged in to mains power or on solar, and then it was sucking power back through to the vehicle and thus the house batteries were being short changed. Given this total stuffed system, it is a miracle that we have been able to function on battery power for the several days without being on mains power.

Tim checked the price on a new isolator, however the exercise was academic; the matter needed to be remedied. And so it was efficiently and effectively. While I am sure the Busy Bees were happy to have the injection of funds from outside town, the extra work on this, the last day before an extended Easter holiday was not so welcome and put him under pressure.

Over lunch we tossed up options of further travel and the days ahead, finally deciding to book in to the show grounds for a couple of days. We had had time to read through the excellent tourist booklet put out by the powers that be in this town, and decided that there was enough to keep us busy here for at least a couple of days.

As we set off for our next camp, we discovered that the speedometer was once more not functioning. You may recall that we had had this problem in Maroochydore before we left our official Australian home in Buderim.  The mileage of the two kilometres from the auto electrician had recorded, so we knew that the electrical fix had not triggered the problem; it was simply a co-incidence. Now even later in the day, Thursday, pre-Easter, we realised that there was no point to try and have this dealt with until after the holiday. Such repair would fall under the warranty, but required the insurance company’s blessing before any work was undertaken.
After setting up, we set off westward to visit the Paul Wild Obrvatory, the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) Australia Telescope array just twenty five kilometres away. The six  22 meter wide dish antennas, five of which are on a three kilometre long rail track, and the sixth fixed about five kilometres further west, are truly a sight to behold. There are interpretative panels and a room filled with information and exhibits, most of which were far too complicated for a mind as simple as mine. I did however pick up and process enough to appreciate the amazing set up which together with one antenna on the rim of the Warrumbungle caldera at Spring Siding, and another further south at Parkes (west of Orange) is able to collect radio waves from outer space with great accuracy and so reveal so many of the secrets of the universe.

Yarrie Lake
From there, we travelled a further nine kilometres to Yarrie Lake, an unexplained wonder of natural variety, a three kilometre saucer shaped expanse of water on the very edge of the Pilliga Scrub. It is thought to have been formed by a falling meteor many thousands of years ago. If that is so, Narrabri must have truly rocked! The lake is lined with shady gums and shelters and barbeques for picnicking visitors. There is a camp further around which will be very full by tonight. It is a popular place for water skiers and jet skiers . One tiny corner is set aside for swimming so it is evident that the boating public have the upper hand. However the rules set out on a large notice board are so prescriptive (no more than ten craft on the lake at one time, clockwise travel only, licensed drivers of craft only, and on and on and on), one would wonder why bother.

Our showground camp
Another lovely sunset
From there we returned to camp, I did a pile of hand washing, and we prepared for evening which arrives earlier each day. As I wandered over to the ablutions after doing the dishes, just after six o’clock, the sunset was just amazingly beautiful. The birds were already settling down and a couple of horses were being driven at a gallop around the track, pulling sulkies and peering through the darkening evening.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

20 April 2011 - Pilliga No 2 Rest Area, Newell’s Highway, Pilliga Forest, NSW

Tonight we are tucked away up a track not too far from the highway, blinds drawn and hopefully invisible to the passing traffic. Bush camping with the ants, hopefully not too closely!

We left Blackman’s Camp this morning soon after nine, and drove to the eastern exit of the park, parked and did the short walk to the White Gum Lookout., where we passed through a forest of white gums and black cypress to a sandstone outcrop from where we could enjoy the fabulous view back across the caldera through the western pass. It was a sight that made us regret that we were leaving this very beautiful area.

Parklands at Coonabarabran
We drove on down through the foot hills, duly arriving at Coonabarabran, a small rural town nestled on the edge of the range. It boasts a population of about 3,000 and is situated on the Castlereagh River, upstream from Gilgandra.  Coonabarabran is known as the Astronomy Capital of Australia. There are several official observatories near the town, one situated high on the rim of the Warrumbungal Ranges, and we had noticed many more as we drove through the countryside to the town. The many exotic trees, particularly those in the parks, were seasonally golden, and the town was bustling with business. As per normal, we called at the Information Centre to find a small museum exhibiting the fossilized remains of a Diprotodon, the largest known prehistoric marsupial to have lived, found to the east of the town in 1979. It is believed to be 33,500 years old.

We shopped at the Woolworths, bought a newspaper at the Newsagent (as one does here) and filled with water from a tap at one of the parks. By then it was lunch time, then time to head north once more.

We had learned from the woman at the Information Centre of sandstone caves of aboriginal cultural significance on the route north. Unfortunately the elders had decided they did not want obvious signage from the road, and so we had to watch for the modest little sign on the side of the road, deducting mileages from our next destination.
Once found, there was a kilometre of dirt road to rumble and bump along at a very sedate speed, and then an easy walk of 1.7 kilometres which took us to sandstone outcrops, fragile hills eroded by wind and rain over time to form a network of caves used as shelter by the aboriginal people and wild animals. There are interpretative plaques to explain the geological and cultural features. The formations were just gob stopping; man cannot ever hope to exceed the artistic work of nature.

A couple of these caves were fenced with great wire cages because vandals had destroyed some of the natural beauty with graffiti and breakage some twenty years ago. It is such a shame that a few useless criminals should spoil things for the law abiding and respectful masses.

Once back on the road, we watched for free camps advertised in the travelling bible, all rest areas. It was still fairly early and I was keen to come on to this one which was the only one suggested in the CMCA book and only twenty five kilometres from our next destination, Narrabri. We pulled in here, to find (as expected) no toilets or water, but rubbish bins ignored by past travellers, and a maze of little tracks and clearings in the bush here.

As I have typed this, we did hear one vehicle come on down the same track and disappear further into the scrub. Hopefully they will stay down there and not bother us. As we backed into our posse, we had to reverse over an ant nest, over a metre wide. We took the precaution of spraying the tyres with fly spray and have put no other “feet” down. Hopefully this will keep them at bay. Watch this space!