Monday, October 31, 2011

31 October 2011 - G’Day Mate Tourist Park, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

This morning we woke late, later than I have since my decadent childless youth. Last night we had sat up far too late waiting to hear the outcome of the ruling regarding the Qantas employment lock out. Finally we gave up waiting and went to bed. This morning we turned the television on over breakfast and learned that the planes would be back in the air within 24 hours. The whole farce has filled the media gap left by the end of the Rugby World Cup; that and the Melbourne Cup to be run tomorrow. I understand that Australia closes down for that? No doubt we will find out for ourselves.

It was still raining when we did eventually rise and the temperatures were a chilly 17 degrees and remained unchanged most of the day. We pulled out our jeans, jumpers and sox from the back of our wardrobes and wondered how we would cope with next autumn in the south. Obviously we have acclimatised.

We spent the morning inside then ventured out after lunch to the supermarket, walking up and down the aisles with the locals; the extent of our daily exercise. Back at the camp we hunkered down as the afternoon closed in earlier than usual, and the rain set in for real. Later we peeked outside and found the water up to our doormat; a good reason to shut ourselves in and maybe pull the heater out to fight the 15 degree temperature. The weather forecast promises improvements tomorrow and the next day, so hopefully we will get to enjoy the remaining attractions highlighted in our guide book rather than waste our days away reading and writing.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

30 October 2011 - G’Day Mate Tourist Park Alice Springs, Northern Territory

We woke to overcast skies, having heard rain in the night, all as correctly forecasted. The birds were not concerned about the lack of sunshine, but were out in force as every other morning here. It is a lovely park, with heaps of shade and full of birds. We had no difficulty in deciding to extend our stay here, albeit for just a further three days for now.

Over breakfast I put my ideas for the day to Chris and he surprised me by suggesting that we venture out to the West MacDonnell Ranges despite the likelihood of rain and thunder storms. He is the driver and he has been here before. Many of the attractions here are déjà vu for him, although not so for those of yesterday. And so once more, the eski was packed up and we set off, via the Coles supermarket in town to buy some fruit.

Our first stop was at John Flynn’s Historical Grave, the resting place for the ashes of the mastermind of the Flying Doctor Service, and his wife. The monument or grave is situated on a knoll looking back toward the town. How appropriate when he so obviously was passionate about this great outback of Australia.

The next destination was Simpson’s Gap, just eighteen kilometres from Alice Springs, being one of the most prominent gaps in the Western MacDonnell Ranges. It was Sunday which may have explained the greater number of tourists than yesterday, however I believe that the West MacDonnell Ranges are promoted more than the East as a tourist destination.

Simpson's Gap
Here at Simpson’s Gap we watched a Stimson’s Python eating a skink, and then slink away. The Python was probably a metre long but quite slim, more interested in his meal and then, seeking somewhere for it to settle, than us. We were quite excited, I because I have not seen too many snakes on this great adventure, and Chris because he is disappointed at the lack of snakes particularly on the roads as we travel along.

Thirty two kilometres further we turned in to see the Standley Chasm. We had been warned that payment of a fee was required here, this being on aboriginal land. We had also been told that the time to see this was midday when the walls of the chasm apparently blaze a fiery red from the overhead sun’s reflection. We thought about the lack of sun and the need to pay for something we probably would not even see, turned and decided to revisit this when we plan to explore the furthest extent of this area.

As we entered the aboriginal reserves which cover over 50% of the Territory, there were the same signs we had seen as we had travelled south on the Stuart Highway, stating that we were entering a Prescribed Area where there was to be "no Pornography or Liquor". We have not stopped to read the small print on the signs to discover exactly what “pornography” covers. Does it include some episodes of Coronation Street? However we should not worry ourselves about it; I cannot see how this or the liquor ban could affect us.

Hermannsburg is the non-aboriginal name for the Arrente settlement of Ntaria. These days so many of the place names, particularly of National Parks, are changing back to the original aboriginal one, just as so many of the names of New Zealand geographical sites are reverting to their original Maori name. Co-incidentally, just last night, we saw a news report on the television about the poor attendance at the local Ntaria primary school, despite the input by sporting hero mentors, when it does briefly spike.

Hermannsburg is the birth place of Australia’s most famous and successful Aboriginal artist. But first the history of this place:

The remnants of the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg
Hermannsburg was the first Aboriginal Mission in the Northern Territory, established by the Lutheran Church in 1877, or more specifically by Carl Strehlow. He had been working with aboriginal people in South Australia and had mastered their language before moving north into the Territory. Here  he found the local people spoke a different language and faced the new challenge of communicating with  this lot. He, Pastor Strehlow, was obviously a linguistic genius, because before long he had the local vernacular mastered, and later compiled a dictionary containing over 8000 words, translated the New Testament and wrote many ethnographic accounts of the local people. Like most missions of their time, the Christian leaders taught the locals trades and their wives taught embroidery and tatting, both very useful arts in such an environment. The organisation and reputation spread and soon other aboriginal people joined the mission, situated on the banks of the Fink River. With the added pressure of population, water was scarce and the industries of tanning and general self-sufficiency required better resources. In time water was piped from a well eight kilometres away.

There was a changing of the guard and while one Pastor Albrecht was at the helm, in 1934 he was called upon by an artist by the name of Rex Batterbee who displayed his work at the mission. Local Albert Namatjira was thirty two years old at the time and was fascinated by the artist’s water colours. Pastor Albrecht suggested Albert accompany the artist two years later on a two month trip. During that time Batterbee instructed Albert and he, Albert, took to it like a duck to water. Just two years later, Albert’s first exhibition was arranged and an immediate success. Over the ensuing years, Albert exhibited regularly, his work sold and his fame spread. He died in 1959 but even after all this time, his water colours are much sought after by art dealers.

Chris called in to the Mission site thirty nine years ago, to find it all rather dismal and decrepit. Today we called in to find that great pains have been taken to restore it to its 19th century state. Art works by Albert Namatjira and his family and friends who were also influenced by Batterbee, but not as talented, are on display, along with stories, photos and the history of this place.

But alas, by now the rain was becoming more persistent. Earlier we had eaten our lunch in the confines of the landcruiser and when we alighted at Hermannsburg we had put our caps on to keep any rain off our glasses. By the time we had mooched around the restored whitewashed German style buildings, I was cold, as cold as I have been since flying back from New Zealand.

Travellimg up through the Fink River valley
We pressed on to the Finke Gorge National Park, the entrance not too far from Hermannsburg. There was a clear sign spelling out that the twenty two kilometres road ahead  was only suitable for 4WDs. Chris had travelled up to Palm Valley all those years ago in a two wheel drive car with three others, and while they had become stuck in the riverbed overnight, he had positive memories of the place.

Palm Valley
More views of the road to Palm Valley
We drove up a corrugated dirt road, past a flock of Major Mitchell Cockatoos, the first we had seen off the pages of the field guide, criss-crossing the sandy bed of the wide Finke River, mostly dry, through deep soft red dirt, over great shelves of hard rock, passing amazing great cliffs, until we reached the Palm Valley, home to a diverse range of plant species which are rare and unique to the area. It was the Red Cabbage Palms and cycads that impressed me, giving the valley the impression of an oasis of date palms in an Arabian desert. We passed two tour buses coming out, but no one else until we reached the end of the road where we found one 4WD vehicle parked. We had walked the last kilometre after having driven up a particularly tricky section of the road. Chris realised that this road had now moved up to No.1 on the scale of difficulty; I was terribly impressed with how well he had handled the road. Reaching the shelter at the end of the road, we decided to do just ten minutes of the walk up the valley; it was getting late and the rain was becoming more persistent. Even that token view of the valley on foot was just amazing and I considered the effort to get up here well worth it.

Returning to the beginning of the walk, we found that the driver of the hire vehicle was back. He offered to drop us back to our vehicle which we appreciated greatly. It turned out he had flown into Alice Springs from Sydney for a job interview with the National Parks. We wished him well and kept closely in front of him as we both drove out on the roads much wetter than they had been on entry. While he had confessed minimal experience in driving such roads, he did seem to lack a little confidence, and we do think he was pleased that we could travel convoy style back to the main road. Chris summed up this 21st century experience of this Palm Valley adventure as follows:

In 1972 I travelled this road in a two wheel drive Holden but I am sure that this road is now very different. I doubt that a two wheel drive vehicle would make the journey now; it is demanding enough for a 4WD with a high clearance.

Let this be a warning for anyone travelling in a whizz-bank (camper van with a sliding side door) or an ordinary car.

The colours that so inspired the works of Albert Namatjira
Chris suggested I drive the rest of the way back, and so I did for the last eighty kilometres. We stopped twice to rescue a couple whose battery was playing up, hitching up to the jumper leads and seeing them on their way. Each time they sped off and the third time their car faltered, someone else had come to their rescue before we reached them.

Again home by about six o’clock, the rain having cleared away and another day of adventure still to be decided.

29 October 2011 - G’Day Mate Tourist Park, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

Over breakfast we decided to set out east of Alice Springs to explore the East MacDonnell Ranges. The eski was packed up, suntan crème liberally plastered, sunhats and sturdy boots packed, and we were off.

The MacDonnell Ranges rise dramatically from the Central Australian desert floor, stretching east to west for 400 kilometres on either side of Alice Springs. The word "Ranges" is important because these are in indeed a collection of mountains, ridges, hills and ranges.

Immediately east of the town is the Heavitree Range, rising steeply from the dry bed of the Todd River. Across the river, immediately rising from the southern route, both rail and road, is Mount Mullin, atop of which sit the aerials for television, radio and everything else that requires such high wire structures. This space between these two geological masses is the Heavitree Gap which I have remarked on previously.
Travelling east on the Ross Highway, we arrived firstly at the Emily & Jessie Gap Nature Park. We found both these gaps to be very beautiful. The red rock walls rise above mainly dry river beds. Emily Gap is registered as a sacred site because of the rock paintings supposedly depicting caterpillars. With imagination, we were also able to see these. With imagination, one can almost see anything.

On our return to the car park at Jessie’s Gap, we were offered a slice of chocolate cake by a woman with her husband and three daughters. Pressed, we could not refuse, and soon found ourselves in conversation with them. This family of five from Yoavil in New South Wales have been on the road for a couple of years, travelling all around the country under the umbrella of the Christian Maintenance Mission. He is a carpenter and as they travel, they stay with Christian communities, repairing or building churches or houses for the congregation. Obviously their accommodation is free most of the time but the cost of travel even apart from that is no small matter. The girls are aged from nearly six to nearly ten, and were absolutely charming. We found ourselves with them for much of the day, because they, like us were exploring the Eastern MacDonnell Ranges and seemed to be interested in exactly the same attractions as us.

Thirty seven kilometres on, we pulled off to visit the Corroboree Rock Conservation Reserve. This is an Eastern Arrente sacred site and as a place of corroboree, this means a place of meeting, ceremony and celebration. Actually there is doubt as to how significant this place was as there is no water, and so why would people bother to hang out here. I have failed to mention however that the Rock is an amazing formation, shaped a little like a fan, with a couple of windows toward the top. This alone would draw a crowd.
Corroboree Rock
A further thirty eight kilometres brought us to the turnoff to the Trephina Gorge Nature Park. This is noted for its sheer quartzite cliffs and River Red Gum lined water course. Two gorges dissect the range; Trephina with its wide views and sandy creek bed, and the John Hayes Rock Hole with steep, narrow walls. This second spot could  be reached by four kilometres of track suitable only for 4WDs. After a very very long four kilometres, Chris admitted that it was the roughest track he had driven in the years he and I have been together, and the second roughest in his driving life. (The prize went to a track in the north of the Territory when he was working decades ago at Bamylli)
About the John Hayes Rock Hole
At the entrance to the park we were warned about Mulga snakes (also known as King Browns such as I met at Karamba) and dingoes but we saw none. We did however encounter Perentie monitors just short of two metres (the second largest lizard in the world) and Long Nose Dragons (also known as the Ta-ta lizard because they sometimes wave a leg in farewell as they scurry away.) High up on the edge of the canyon we came up close and personal with a friendly Spinifex Pigeon and once down on the river bed, Lincoln Ringnecked Parrots, their green feathers bright in the sunlight.

We had lunch at the John Hayes Rock Hole and later took a forty minute walk across the top of the canyon, both times encountering our missionary mates.

Again we took to the Ross Highway, travelling through great expanses of green open country, and saw Hereford cattle grazing near the road side. This land was bounded by weird and wonderful rock forms and I remarked to Chris that it reminded me of the Utah Badlands we are all familiar with from John Wayne and Brigitte Bardot western movies, except that everything was much greener and the narrow towers of the Badlands were missing. Chris thought not, but did agree that the landscape was spectacular.

At about the seventy kilometre mark, we turned  off the seal and travelled a further thirty three kilometres on gravel road, crossing back and forward across river beds and then up and on to a great plain, over the cattle stop in to the Love Creek Station and on to the Arltunga Historical Reserve.

Remains of Arltunga
Arltunga was the site of the Red Centre’s first significant gold discovery in 1887, making it officially central Australia’s first town. Fortune seekers had to travel 600 kilometres from Oodnadatta railhead, often on foot with their possessions; swag and tools, by wheelbarrow. The site was actively worked until the early 1900s but given the isolation and lack of water, like so many mines of old, was abandoned.

A mine shaft for tourists
More recently many of the old buildings have been partly restored, and leaflets produced to support the numbers on the posts next to each building or work site. The unmanned Information Centre is full of marvellous displays and stories, but this like everything else on the reserve, appears to be bypassed by the public, the tourists and the locals, which is a shame when it is obvious that there has been so much work readying the place for historic purposes. We walked about the Government Works and the MacDonnell Range Reef mines, descending down the iron rungs of purpose built ladders into one shaft, especially encouraged by the family who had come on out this far as well. Needless to say, we did not linger, having been warned of snakes and scorpions.

It was late afternoon when we headed back the 110 kilometres toward Alice, arriving back at the camping ground at about six o’clock, dined and sat late into the evening watching Doc Martin and Taggart.

Friday, October 28, 2011

28 October 2011 - G’Day Mate Tourist Park, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

We passed an excellent evening, the best for a while, delighted to watch the news even if it did take some juggling to find that we had missed that on SBS, given the warped time zones. The bugs were far fewer and controlled, or rather done away with, by the zapper.

This morning Sheila and Peter set off into the McDonnell Ranges, planning to be back on Monday to have some work done of their van and settle back here to see the more local sights. We intend at this stage to do the McDonnell Ranges with day trips, however plans could change at any time. There is much to see here and as we worked our way through the many brochures after breakfast, dismissing commercial three day tours and didgeridoo recitals, we realised we could be a week here and still not see everything we wish to.

Today was set aside as a fudge-out day. Chris did a few repairs about and I caught up on computer stuff, glad to have internet again. We caught up with my parents and Larissa on Skype and hope to catch up with the others in the days to come. The added time difference does complicate matters however I am sure we will cope.

After lunch we went back in to town to buy a few bits and pieces and to find a barber, the latter task unsuccessful. I have offered my services but as yet, Chris has not reached the point of desperation.

Wandering about the town to find the various service providers, we could not fail to notice the idle locals, all dressed modestly, more so than the tourists, but oh-so-idle, and oh-so-lacking in personal hygiene. The interior of the banks and shops, supermarkets and department stores here in Alice Springs are just as they are in the big smart towns and cities, but the streets about do nothing to inspire a return. Even if one were to remove the people, there would still be the same reaction. I do believe it will be the natural beauty of the attractions about that will keep us here and impress an admiration for this place.

27 October 2011 - G’Day Mate Tourist Park, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

Once more we suffered the invasion of insects, and once more were forced to retire earlier than we would have otherwise chosen. Apart from that however, our roadside camp was excellent, shared just by one other. We headed off after breakfast to complete the last 95 kilometre leg of our 1,100 kilometre journey from Mt Isa to Alice Springs.

We stopped at a marker denoting the highest point on the route north to south, and were bemused to find no advice as to what that altitude might be. Later we found it to be 727.2 metres above sea level.

As we neared Alice Springs, there was less evidence of burning and we were surprised how green everything was. Chris was particularly surprised at how high and lush the growth was. He was sure that thirty nine years ago, the vegetation had been no more than a metre high. I told him that trees do grow and that much time had passed. Again we later learned that the area has had two very good years of rain hence the comparative lushness.

We called at the Information Centre and came away with a great pile of brochures and a map which we used to find our way to this park. Outside the Centre we had encountered fellow Lotus owners, who had bought theirs in Woombye as we had. We chatted with Peter and Sheila for a short while and then again found them registering as we entered the park. We ended up parked next to each other and swapped notes on travel and other matters during the course of the day.

Views of Alice Springs from Anzac Hill
We set up and after lunch went back into Alice, the centre being about five kilometres back through the Heavitree Gap, a natural gap in the McDonnell Ranges through which the Todd River might flow sometimes; I find this gap quite beautiful. We drove up Anzac Hill from where we could look over this town of well over 20,000 people, nestled between the surrounding hills, saw the Ghan, the tourist train that runs from Adelaide to Darwin, and generally admired this place which is not, after all, a tin-pot wayside shanty town in the desert.

From there we drove to the Alice Springs Telegraph Station historical reserve, which we wandered around, finding the original spring in the bed of the Todd River, watching euros (hill kangaroos) hop about and then paid the entry fee and spent well over an hour exploring the well restored station. This is of course the genesis of Alice Springs, and was one of twelve repeater stations constructed along the Overland Telegraph Line in the early 1870’s to relay messages between Darwin and Adelaide. The completion of the line heralded a new era in Australia for it enabled fast and direct communication between Britain and her independent colonies.

The station was the first European settlement in the region and originally included the area now covered by the township. One Charles Todd oversaw the construction of the 3,200 kilometre line completed in just two years. To support itself, the Telegraph Station was also a grazing property and at one stage ran 300 head of cattle, 70 horses and a flock of goats.

The Todd River which sometimes runs with water
Remnants of the Alice Springs Telegraph Station
Much later, in the 1930s, the station was home and school to aboriginal children, either taken from their mothers or left there by the same. There are many stories recounting the life of the station and of those who at one time or another called it home. Alec, a fine part aboriginal man of eighty years of age, works there now along with many others, and we were fortunate enough to tag along with a bus load of American tourists and hear him tell of the time he spent there as a little boy and how he was not reconciled with his mother until forty six years later. He also proudly said he was one half Scottish. He, like so many of these children, was the product of a liaison between an irresponsible white man and an aboriginal woman. While these stories pull at the heartstrings and I have met on my travels those whose mother or grandmothers were some of those lost children, I tend to think they were still better off than those we saw about the streets, parks and riverbed today, aimlessly sitting or wandering about with no purpose, no pride, no future.

We have now sorted our issue with the time out; for a few days we were at a loss as to what the time was, having shifted across state borders with differing attitudes toward daylight saving. The Lonely Planet states the following:

Australia is divided into three time zones: the western Standard Time zone (GMT plus eight hours) covers WA, central Standard Time (plus 9 ½ hours) covers NT and SA, and Eastern Standard Time (plus ten hours) covers Tasmania, Victoria, NSW, the ACT and Queensland. There are minor exceptions – Broken Hill (NSW) for instance is on Central Standard Time.

Daylight saving for which clocks are put forward an hour, operates in some states during the warmer months (October to early April), However, things can get pretty confusing, with WA, the NT and Queensland staying on standard time, while Tasmania daylight saving starts a month earlier than SA, Victoria, the ACT and NSW.

From this I ascertained that I needed to put my watch back by half an hour. Chris was not convinced so that was yet another question we put to the volunteer at the Information Centre: what is the correct time? I was right. And so we are now, currently, three and a half hours behind New Zealand.

26 October 2011 - Connor Well, Stuart Highway, Northern Territory

This morning dawned clear and warm once more and the young Victorians were full of energy and ready to go. During breakfast I heard a call, “ Look at us”. Realising of course that it was not my own children (in case you thought I was mad) I did still venture outside, with camera, and saw as their parents did, three of these free spirits high on the top of the nearest peak. I applaud the fact that these children are not kept in cotton wool, that they are allowed to move without fear of falling and complimented their parents on the same. Too many children today rarely venture outside the safety of their home comforts.

Posing amongst the Marbles
After a brief walk through the marbles, we set off south again, first pulling in to Wauchope (pronounced Walk-up) where there was little but a roadhouse and a simple camping ground. 

Just down the road a bit, we pulled in to Wycliffe Well, UFO capital of Australia. Apparently it is here that most UFO’s have been spotted in Australia. This could have something to do with the location of the pub. No matter what, there are zany sculptures and pictures around to make it a memorable spot. A caravan park is situated just adjacent to the roadhouse, the entrance gate adorned by red flowering trees.

 Another 100 kilometres on and the landscape changed; a wide valley with high sides, topped with cliffs.

Obviously once upon a time, a river cut through this landscape and left it like this. I was reminded of the Mokau valley in New Zealand’s King Country, except here the limestone was replaced by the red sides of the Crawford Range. We stopped at the old Telegraph Station which along with the roadhouse and another camping ground, is the extent of Barrow Creek. We wandered about the ruins, partially restored and read the few interpretative panels. Some sort of workshop, or rather wrecker’s yard, stood between the roadhouse and the station, an eyesore to what would have otherwise been a charming, albeit lonely place.
Seventy five kilometres south of Barrow Creek, we pulled over at the McDouall Stuart Memorial which marks the centre of Australia, as ascertained by John McDouall Stuart when he came this way back in the 1860s, and which has subsequently been verified by other more modern methods. The nearby hill, he named Mt Sturt, but was later renamed in honour of Stuart himself. He, like Burke and Wills, was one of Australia’s great explorers, but unlike them, more successful and less foolhardy (if explorers of that time can be considered so).

After leaving Tennant Creek, the road markers every ten kilometres had shown the letters TT which we had figured to represent Ti-Tree, so I assumed that this place, Ti-Tree, must be a place big enough to have a shire office and works yard. How wrong I was. Ninety kilometres past Barrow Creek, we came to Ti-Tree. We pulled off the main road, passed through and on, unimpressed.

Remnants of the telegraph station at Barrow Creek
During the course of the trip we had seen road killed lizards, but more often those poised mid-course, frozen like statues. They sense the danger but cannot quite comprehend whether that danger is a swooping raptor or an oncoming wheeled monster, and then by the time they figure it is the latter and flee, they are too late and end up as another road statistic. Today alas, we added to those statistics; we felt the bump as the wheels rode up over it, and resolved from hereonin to sound the horn as we do for birds busy clearing the roads.

Our camp at Connor Well

About another one hundred kilometres on, we pulled in to this rest area, devoid of any amenities, but having water, the quality of which is not guaranteed. Again there is a derelict water pump windmill, which offers an odd kind of charm. We hope the flying bugs will be less, having come so much further south. Alas the bird life will have suffered great loss from these fires, and so the bugs will be looking out for food, even Kiwi blood. There are millions of ants close to our site, however they do seem to be happy to get on with what they were doing before we arrived, which includes surviving the attacks of the tiny little skinks that are darting about. Go skinks! As a precaution, we have made a talcum powder trail all around the tyres and around our outdoor seating area. It seems they, the ants, are not as keen on smelling sweet as we are.

25 October 2011 - Devil’s Marbles Conservation Park, Northern Territory

It took some time this morning to clean up the zillions of bugs throughout the van, killed by zapper and flyspray, a thick black carpet on the floor. However once done, and breakfast over, we set off west again, still travelling through burnt pastoral land. All of which felt flat, but was in fact very gently sloping up then down and up again. These are the Barkly Tablelands and are larger than the state of Victoria. Dotted through this blackened landscape were patches of bush, far greener than you would expect. We even noticed puddles of water on the road side in places, although we did not encounter any rain ourselves. On reaching the Stuart Highway, that which runs north – south from Darwin to Adelaide, having travelled about 450 kilometres from the border crossing, we turned south toward Tennant Creek.

Once on this more major road, we were not bothered by many road trains, instead the trucks gave way to cars and utes.

We pulled in to the Mary Anne Dam water reservoir a few kilometres north of Tennant Creek for lunch and were delighted to find this oasis, complete with playground, picnic areas, walkways including one that appeared to lead all the way on to the town.

Lunch spot beside the Mary Anne Dam
Until it was completed in 1979, those in Tennant Creek had relied on water carried from distant bores. One might well wonder why then did anyone settle in such a hell hole. Tennant Creek like most of the settlements we will pass through on our way south was one of the many Telegraph Stations and much more recently the base from which many lived when the rail was extended from Alice Springs to Darwin.

We paused in Tennant Creek only long enough to refuel, buy some masking tape, filler and a dispensing gun at the hardware store and to buy a day old newspaper at the obligatory inflated price.

Tennant Creek has a population today of about 3,000 people. It began as the last great gold rush of Australia as late as the 1930s so the town is relatively young. Hence it has none to the once grand two story buildings we have so admired in Queensland and New South Wales. Instead the buildings are all low and mostly barricaded in with bars and net wire. Those locals who do not work, of which there seem to be many, wander or hang about the wide and otherwise quite pleasant main street.

A further 140 kilometres south is the Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve. Chris remembered stopping in there thirty nine years ago when he was travelling with his mate, Stan, and while having no memory of anything remarkable, thought it would be negligent to continue on past without a cursory visit. This basin of orange land, holding thousands of huge marble like rocks was well worth the visit. Such formations are often considered, by the ignorant such as myself, to have been flung or belched up by some ancient volcano. Not so here; they are rocks that have been worn away by water to leave this accumulation of curious shapes. According to aboriginal myth, they are the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent who features in nearly every tale spun.

Our camp at the Devil's Marbles
We stopped at a couple of wayside spots on the road side from where we could wander about, and then decided to check out the camp which was mentioned in our Camps 5 bible, but as having a cost. We agreed that we would be willing to pay up to $20 to overnight but not a penny more. Imagine our delight to find this little bush camp tucked away behind one of the hillocks of boulders, with shelters, toilets, rubbish bins, fireplaces but no water, inviting us to stay for the grand total of $3.30 per person per night. It was a no-brainer; we elected at once to stay.

Sunset over the Devil's Marbles
By night fall there were probably a dozen other travellers parked up for the night, one a family of six, the children aged about four to twelve, on a three month adventure from Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, up to Darwin and down the west before heading home. I had noted one of the foreign tourists come over to our fireplace and take an armful of wood that had been left by the ranger. It had not had our name on it so I guess we had no particular claim, however we were soon impressed to be called upon by the mother of this youthful tribe asking if they too may have some wood. We offered it all, understanding that a camp fire is one of the delights of a travelling experience especially for children. And besides, we had spent time at the Mary Ann Dam collecting quite a pile of sticks and stumps for this very purpose.

After dinner, Chris set a fire and was impatient for me to join him when he had an absolute blaze, contained in the metal fireplace bowls. We sat into the evening until it had died away, watching and listening to the four children chattering around their fire, debating the merits of toasting marshmallows. When we finally went in, we were once again plagued by insects despite the fact that Chris had taped up all the edges of the window frames and the air conditioner. The mystery and the chaos remained. Once more it was early to bed courtesy of Outback marauders.

24 October 2011 Wonoraha Bore, Barkly Highway, Northern Territory

We woke basking in the aftermath of the great and glorious rugby players who had managed to bring victory and save all their fellow compatriots from at least six months of depression and the economy from plunging further, simply by squeezing a one point win over France who had actually deserved to win. But then such is life; it is not always fair and it was New Zealand’s turn to celebrate something positive. Surely even the French could not begrudge us that!

Our own enjoyment of this great event had been somewhat marred by a huge electrical storm which caused only intermittent reception, however as itinerants, we are now appreciative of any reception and it was enough. Just. And now it was time to face the future.

After breaking camp, we headed away from this good Big Four camp, good but not as amazing as one would expect from a member of this prestigious group. We would however be happy to recommend the Argylla because we personally don’t give a dam for the fancy extras some of these camps offer. The wheels turned west and so it was that we soon found our way across the gentle hills, past the George Fisher and Lady Annie Mines, both operated by Xstrata Mt Isa Mine, travelling the 189 kilometres to Camooweal, the most western settlement in Queensland where we stopped for fuel, paying an exorbitant 30 cents per litre more than in Mt Isa. We had thought to stop longer and walk up and down the street to explore this place; however I popped out while Chris filled the fuel tanks and did the exploring of what little there was.

Camooweal has a population of 310, is 236 metres above sea level, was established in 1884 and has a drover’s museum which I would have liked to have seen. Alas it closes at midday and it was past that already. Apparently cattle used to be driven south through this route and when you consider the climate and the long distances, and consider the obstacles that Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman (or at least their characters in the film, Australia) had, I suspect this museum may have been fascinating.

Instead we pushed on a further thirteen kilometres west, crossed the border, and were advised that we could now travel at 130 kilometres an hour so long as we watched out for the road trains of up to fifty four metres long. Road trains were already old hat to us, but the speed limit did prove to be a challenge. Try as we might, we could not get within forty or fifty kilometres an hour of it. This actually is our preferred chugging speed whilst towing. Fortunately the road continued to be excellent all the way and so we were no hindrance to those who took advantage of the allowable speed.
The countryside from Camooweal west for about one hundred kilometres was wide cleared pastoral land for as far as one could see. It just stretched on and on and the convex horizon would have surely confused the flat earth believers. And then the burning started, hundreds of kilometres of road through scorched earth. Traffic was scarce; just the odd road train or fellow traveller about every twenty minutes.

When we pulled into our road side camp here, beside this dilapidated windmill and bore hole, containing nothing but an assortment of rubbish, we lamented the lack of healthy growth and birds. Instead the fires had laid bare the cast offs of previous campers, bottles and cans which would have otherwise been hidden in the scrub. And the bugs were out in force, finding their way in under the window frames to avoid the screens. The zapper could not cope with the numbers, and nor could we, who gave up, turned the lights out and went to bed. The wind came up and blew for some time, and we spent the night closed up as if in an oven.

23 October 2011 - Argylla Tourist Park, Mt Isa, Queensland

Forty hours later and we are now anticipating the final Rugby World Cup game. You might think our life has revolved around this six week-long event in New Zealand, but it is not really so, and certainly not as it has for some we know. I am sure there will be great cricket tests and tennis grand slams and cycling tours that will fill the void for sports fans, however it is the rugby that has captured me over the last little while, and for me, not a sports fan at all, that is really something.

Of course we did watch the Wallabies victory over Wales on Friday night and were pleased with the result. Interestingly, nowhere but a brief mention on the news, did we hear further about it. For Australia, rugby is over and out for the time being and I suspect we might be among a minority hanging on to our screens this afternoon.

But enough, for now….

Yesterday morning we drove into town and booked a mine tour, the only one now available here in Mount Isa, that with Hard Times Mine, a purpose built underground mine, constructed 20 metres beneath the Information Centre and museum. Apparently Xstrata Mt Isa Mine used to run tours for tourists and anyone else interested, however about eight years ago, a woman broke her leg whilst on the tour and sued the company. I have no idea of the financial outcome, however the whole fuss and bother, and no doubt the cost of the law suit, persuaded the mining company to put an end to the tours. Thank you Lady Tourist!!!

Pressure was put on the company soon after and it was agreed that the mine would construct this dummy mine here in the town, investing $16 million or so in the project. There are about 1.2 kilometres of tunnels with all the fans, electrics, pneumatics, and machinery that a real mine has. The equipment in the mines is authentic but obsolete. It all works and is of the era when the guide, Bill, worked his 33 years in the mine.

After an early lunch we returned to the centre and set off with Bill and his eight year old grandson, Trent, a worthy apprentice tour guide. We were kitted out with orange paper jumpsuits, complete with front zippers, gumboots, one marked red and the other green, orange helmets, heavy belts from which we hung a heavier battery to power our headlights. Bill was similarly dressed however Trent’s token gesture toward the safety requirements was sneakers and helmet. Obviously the costume had more to do with the dramatic experience and less to do with regulation.

We were shown various pieces of retired machinery on the surface then taken to the shaft lift, photos taken, then told that the brake on the lift mechanism was unfortunately faulty and we would be driven down into the mine. Personally I think the lift has never been operational but then maybe I am just a sceptic.

In the mine we were led about from one tunnel to another to experience and see the equipment that had been used to dig the tunnel, would have taken us from the shaft had it been working and pretended to drill holes with a real pneumatic drill. At one point we were asked to all switch our lights off and experience the absolute silent darkness when the lights all go off. I, who do not like enclosed spaces, was captured by the whole experience, asked questions as I always do, probably driving the other tourists mad, and found out that Trent’s ninth birthday was just six days away. Because of my claustrophobia, I had not been hell bent on doing the tour however Chris was keen, so I went along, and as always, was so very pleased I had. We would recommend this tour to all visitors of Mt Isa, after all, mining is what Mt Isa is all about.

In 1923 John Campbell Miles discovered rich mineral ore in these Selwyn Ranges. It took some years and a few ownership changes before the mine showed a profit. Silver, lead, copper and zinc are all mined here and it was the more intensive copper extraction and export that turned the business around in the years of the Second World War. Initially there was the mine town on the western side of the Leichardt River and the other town across the river; and then as the mine expanded, all residences and the town business was moved to the Eastern side. With unity at last, the town has thrived and is a city with all the services you could expect in the outback. It does still however close on Sundays except for the IGA just up the road from the camp.

Today we set off up to Lake Moondarra, 16 kilometres north west of the city, the manmade reservoir on the Leichardt River first operational in 1958. Interestingly it was constructed by an American company, Utah Construction. Prior to the dam, Mt Isa had sourced its water from a series of bores on the bed of the Leichardt River and the Rifle Creek dam. The information regarding the construction of the dam speaks of the rocky gorge of the river, and while the word gorge is not one that springs to mind when one considers this area, it must indeed be so, because there are numerous islands in the lake and the hills around the side of the lake are rocky and rugged if not terribly high.

Lake Moondarra
There is a considerable area around the lake that is available for the enjoyment of the Mt Isa population. We enjoyed a picnic lunch under a well-constructed and particularly clean shelter, in the company of dozens of gallahs and one lone peewee. Later we drove further around the lake and saw the areas put aside for water ski clubs and the like, and did a short walk from where we had lovely views over the lake and the recreational areas. Along the path were excellent interpretive panels giving details of the trees and again I realised that a gum is not necessarily a gum, and that the huge wealth of information, botanical, nutritional and medicinal that was carried in the heads of the aboriginal people when they roamed this expanse was far more than I could ever begin to absorb and retain.

We called in to the one open supermarket on our return and stocked up with what we could in anticipation of the next stage of our journey. Up to this time and even then, we had swung from one decision to the next regarding the direction we would take. We were agreed however that we would head either east or west rather than take the road south which, if followed diligently, would have eventually taken us to Burke, hundreds and hundreds of dirt road to see the famous pub.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

21 October 2011 - Argylla Tourist Park, Mount Isa, Queensland

It is still early afternoon, earlier than I would normally put fingers to keys. The day has clouded over, a warm breeze drifts through the awning and Chris and I are resting having finished lunch; he reading today’s paper and me here playing with my blog.

We breakfasted early this morning then took the land cruiser around to MAS Mechanical for its service, walking the three and a half kilometres back to the caravan park. Walking in the warm breeze before nine in the morning is rather wonderful, although we were singularly unimpressed with the area we walked through. It was definitely not the classiest area of Mount Isa, and I would hope there are none less classy. Fortunately most untidy houses had high wire fences around them, restraining the vicious man eating dogs that barked at us as we passed. Those residents that were home and out of bed were either sitting about looking like they weren’t too anxious to head for work (they might have just come off shift?) or were engaged in angry domestic rows.

The next couple of hours were spent reading and doing laundry, then just before eleven the garage rang to say the vehicle was ready. This co-incided well with the hair appointment I had made on our way back earlier in the day, so Chris walked the distance alone in the heat back to the garage while I sat chatting with my hairdresser in an air-conditioned salon. She was most informative about her life,  some of which echoed my own. I did have to walk about half a kilometre back to the park and was pleased to have my straw hat on. A nesting magpie flew at me quite aggressively four times in a row. I now realise that I was, after all, far too hasty in turning off my negative attitude to magpies. They are, here just as they are in Otago, nasty natured after all, even if they do sing well.

And Chris was happy to find the service less than half that quoted by the Toyota dealer. All in all, an excellent day so far.

20 October 2011 - Argylla Tourist Park, Mount Isa, Queensland

We arrived in Mount Isa this morning soon after ten and found the Information Centre, acquiring a list of caravan parks and a handful of other useful information. The Argylla Tourist Park is situated on the eastern edge of the city, rural on one side and shielded from the town and all that goes with that on the other side by a hillock of rock. We chose this above the other three parks because the three big signs as we approached the city had cleverly won us over. So far we have not regretted the choice.
The journey through to Mount Isa was quite wonderful this morning. We travelled through rugged red hills, climbing up into the Selwyn Range, and then came upon the city laid out in front of us at 356 metres ASL. The first impression was as if we had simply arrived at a great open cast mine, no more and no less.

In fact that is what Mt Isa is, but it is also a city of about 23,500 people. It is dominated by the sprawling Xstrata Mount Isa Mine with its 270 metre exhaust stack from the lead smelter. Xstrata Mount Isa Mine is the nation’s deepest underground mine and is still the largest single producer of copper, silver, lead and zinc in the world. This record will not last for too long; the Olympic Mine in South Australia, currently in its planning and consent stages, will dwarf even this mining operation.

After setting up camp and having lunch, amid the company of a dozen noisy Apostle birds, we set off back into town to find a garage to undertake the 140,000 kilometre service on the land cruiser. The Toyota dealer was happy to oblige; they could book us in early November and it would cost about $1,000. Reeling from shock, we thanked them for the information and backed out, before checking out the next name on the list. The vehicle is now booked in for a service at a price nearer 50% of Bell & More’s quote, at MAS Mechanical at 8.30 am tomorrow. We will set the alarm.

19 October 2011 - Fountain Spring Rest Area, Barkly Highway, Queensland

Our trip into Cloncurry this morning was a continuation of the same beautiful scenery enjoyed the afternoon before. Outcrops of rugged red rock sprang from the otherwise flat, or seemingly flat, stations that are accessed by gravel roads from the highway, the entries barely marked, the tracks disappearing into the distance. Actual evidence of human habitation is scarce, the buildings and settlements are beyond view of the passing tourist. While it was evident from the road side fences that there must be cattle grazing somewhere near, the only beasts we saw were two that had been hit by road trains and lay inflated beside the road.

In 1861 when Burke and Wills were battling through the terrain looking for the Gulf of Carpentaria, Burke named the river Cloncurry after his cousin. Six years later, one Ernest Henry came wandering through the area looking for grazing land and instead discovered copper. Today the mine bearing his name still operates just north of the township. The town was surveyed in 1876 and given the same name as the river. Today it has a population of about 3,500. Situated at an altitude of 186 metres above sea level, Cloncurry enjoys much higher temperatures, often reaching the high 40s in the summer months and was notedn fact as having Australia’s highest recorded temperature taken in 1889 of 53 degrees centigrade. Chris says this is piffle because he has seen contrary facts in the Guinness Book of Records and other sources. Perhaps in 1889 it was the highest recorded temperature, but not necessarily after.

Cloncurry has also suffered hideous floods over the years and perhaps has had to rebuild or patch all too often to bother too much with the niceties of architecture. It seems to have all the services and shops that one would need, but did not appeal to us greatly. Having said that, we did meet lovely people and enjoyed our time there very much.

When we first arrived we drove to the Information Centre which is situated in the Mary Kathleen Park. Here one can visit the onsite museum and see memorabilia from the Mary Kathleen Uranium Mine and Township and  see a water bottle discarded by Robert Burke on his outing with Wills. We decided to give that all a miss but did walk to the top of the hill behind the Centre, the best Cloncurry can offer as a lookout hill. The view below and all around did little to enhance our initial impression.

We then drove around to the Cloncurry Cemetery to visit in particular the Afghan corner, where the graves all face Mecca as opposed to the others which face toward the coast. The graves date from the turn of the century to about 1950. Cloncurry was Queensland’s largest “Ghantown” in the late 1880s and early 1900s. It was estimated that there were more than 200 Afghan Cameleers and 2000 camels providing transport in the Cloncurry district.

The cameleers with their strings of camels carried supplies, tools and machinery from the nearest railhead for homesteads, mining camps and townships returning with bales of wool and bags of ore. They also carried firewood, railway sleepers, telegraph poles, other necessary items and sometimes even water.

Despite their important contribution to Australia’s development, the cameleers were not always accepted and were often the victims of racial and religious intolerance. Although many lived most of their lives in Australia, there were not eligible for Australian citizenship because they were born in Asia. Many European teamsters objected to the cameleers for economic reasons. Camels could traverse country too difficult for horse and bullock teams, thus the time taken was shorter and the costs of transporting goods cheaper.

Only two graves remain and only one marked; that of the Ghantown’s mullah (priest), Syid O Mar who died in 1915, aged 45, from unknown causes. The Afghans who came with the camels are part of the more obscure history of this country, less celebrated but more interesting to me. Perhaps we should have visited that museum after all?

After lunch we visited the John Flynn Place Museum and Art Gallery. This was a fascinating exhibition, or rather a series of exhibitions, that was well worth the effort, time and entry fee. The greater part of the museum commemorates the work of Reverend John Flynn and the beginnings of his brainchild, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which began in Cloncurry in May 1928.  There is a one third scale of the plane that flew the first mission, a single engine DH150 named Victory. There is also a display and interpretive section about the Treagar pedal wireless and stories about how this revolutionised life in the outback. The opening up of communication and providing a net of safety for this community spread over such a great area, included the School of the Air. Audio tapes, a DVD and a mass of written information on all of this kept us occupied foralmost a couple of hours.

Before leaving the Museum we popped up to the top two floors to see the Fred McKay Art Gallery; there were quite a few excellent works.

We managed to pick up today's Courier Mail and thus armed, set off west toward Mount Isa. Our camp tonight is halfway between Mt Isa and Cloncurry, is as close to the road as last night, however this road is much busier than the Mathilda Highway. Huge trucks pulling three trailers are transporting material toward Mt Isa, sharing the road with the occasional stock truck and a variety of other traffic. At Cloncurry we noted that the railway does pass through, but then heads way south toward Duchess before heading back north west to Mt Isa. Obviously the roadway is one half the distance and the preferred option.

There are three other parties in here tonight; one a family of six, the four children between about eight and fifteen. Chris paused to chat with them and learned they have been travelling for a month, and are now heading back home on the east coast after having been up into the Northern Territory. They have a vehicle loaded with camping gear and somehow all manage to squeeze in!

Chris has just returned from the Gents after seeing the following graffiti on the wall which clearly spells out how the road train drivers feel about the likes of us:

The truckie wrote:

The next war Australia fights, they should send the Grey Nomads. There are a f…ing enough of them!

A traveller scrubbed out the f-word and wrote:

And history proves they have the balls to get the job done.

That says it all, doesn’t it. I shall start waving at the road train drivers.

18 October 2011 - Terry Smith Lookout, Matilda Highway, Queensland

If one were to circumnavigate Australia on Highway One, a trip of some 14,000 kilometres, some of which we have travelled up the east coast, one would now set off from Normanton across 635 kilometres of  unsealed road to Borroloola in the Northern Territory and on toward Katherine. However we, as so many, have chosen to avoid dirt roads where possible, and would take the roundabout detour down to Mt Isa, across to Threeways, and up toward Katherine via Daly Waters. And more to the point, it is not our intention to start a straight forward round trip at this stage of the game. In fact, we are still undecided as to which direction we will travel on through the summer, and have decided only to go as far as Mt Isa, via Cloncurry, before tossing a coin or spinning the bottle.

The route from Karumba to Cloncurry is just short of 450 kilometres, a distance that can be travelled quite safely in one day, but for us, deserves to be taken more slowly.

Brolgas and a pelican beside a lagoon
We travelled the road back to Normanton, back around the wetlands, past the many flocks of brolgas standing in the dry lagoons waiting for the Wet, dodging the road-killed feral pigs, and remarking on the kapok trees, now identified, their pods hanging like Christmas decorations, and waving to all those we passed as local custom decrees.

On reaching Normanton, we bought a loaf of bread at the inflated price of $4.50, checked to see if more up to date papers had arrived since Saturday and topped up with diesel once more. We also discovered a fact we had missed when we stayed here just a few days ago; that Normanton was used by Neville Shute in his novel “A Town Like Alice” as a model for his town like Alice. When he visited this place back in the early 20th century, it was short on services and short on women, as it still is today by modern standards. I did reread the book just a few months ago, and am now regretting that I swapped it in one of the many excellent book exchanges we have made use of. Chris belatedly expressed an interest in reading it.

The morning had got away on us as they do some days, and we covered only forty or so kilometres more before stopping to have lunch.

For about one hundred kilometres the road climbed away from the Gulf so gradually, one had the sensation of travelling through expanses of flat pastoral land, much of it cleared and surprisingly monotonous. We pulled over at Bang Bank Jump Up and Chris catnapped while I read my book, and then armed with a fresh bottle of cold water, we set off again for the Burke and Wills Roadhouse at almost the halfway point between Normanton and Cloncurry. Once past Bang Bang Jump Up, the road did become more interesting. We saw our first red kangaroos, as opposed to the eastern grey that have become so common (to us), saw many flocks of green budgerigars rise from the side of the road in front of us (I learned that the true budgie is only green and that all the coloured ones are mutations inbred for human pleasure) and saw the many hundreds of harriers and carrion creatures carrying out their road clearing chores.

For those who do not know, Burke and Wills were very famous early explorers here in Australia who travelled the route from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria, essentially for the purpose of installing lines of communication between the southern Australian cities and the rest of the world via South East Asia. Their journey was ill-fated from the beginning; they set off with a huge party in 1860, were poorly qualified to undertake such a journey, set off too late in the season, lost many of their party to either mutiny or death, and themselves perished after they turned toward home. One of their number made it out to tell the story. Many books have been written on the subject, one I read soon after arriving here earlier this year. Note the above is a very simple and not very accurate précis of this great Australian story, which I am hardly qualified to recount.

However the point of my mentioning the above, is to give reference to the fact that there are several points on the map around this area which honour that journey. We assumed incorrectly that the Burke and Wills Roadhouse would be such a one and were rather disappointed to find nothing to explain the significance of that actual spot or any reference to them at all except for a mural across the entrance, of the two explorers and a train of camels.
Our camp beside the Matilda Highway
The Roadhouse is situated on the crossroads of the Burke Development Road (aka Matilda Highway) and the Wills Development Road. Perhaps the significance of the Roadhouse name is no more the fact that it intersects the roads with those names? We had understood it to be the site of one of their camps.

As we alighted at the roadhouse, we remarked that the grass and growth all about seemed so much greener than before, and then noticed that water lay in many of the roadside depressions. It had evidently rained not long ago; even though we had personally had had none apart from a few futile drops on the windscreen. Australia’s vegetation has resilience to drought and the ability to reincarnate annually or whenever rain should fall; it had taken little to rejuvenate the growth here across this landscape.
We arrived here at our camp on the side of the highway about eighty kilometres north of Cloncurry close to five o’clock, the second time we have travelled on the roads so late in the afternoon. Again we were pleased to have the air-conditioning and perhaps this habit of delayed travel during the day will become the norm as the temperatures continue to increase.

Yet another humid evening with the temperatures still in the high thirties, and tonight, lightening, both sheet and fork, rather unusual, is flashing in the east. We are sharing this excellent expanse with just one other party, a keen birdwatcher travelling on his own.

Tonight the bugs are plaguing us again. We have just set the zapper up, powered through the inverter. I am not sure how they are getting in around the fly screens; however it is almost as if they are laughing at our pathetic efforts to fence them out. Both of us have even more bites to scratch and we are thoroughly fed up with the hitchhikers that joined us at Normanton; the tiny ants that have found their way in to every nook and cranny and have developed a dislike for the ant killer laid in jar lids for their pleasure. They have also found their way inside this computer and I only hope they have no appetite for electric wires and components. When we reach Mt Isa I shall go see an IT expert about them. I am sure it is not an uncommon problem here.