June 30, 2013

Outback: Kilcowera to Tibooburra

As we were leaving Kilcowera Station, Toni warned us about the weather forecast: a 90% chance of 20 mm rain by afternoon. What could we do other than continue with our plans? The alternative was to try to rearrange at least the next three nights' accommodation, and head north instead of south. We had to take a chance. Toni gave us some tips about driving on dirt roads in the wet. The sky didn't look like trouble... except, was that nascent mackerel?

It seemed like a long way to Hungerford, perhaps because the weather factor had made us a little anxious, and The Dowling Way was taking us east before we could head west. Instead of ambling along, perhaps ducking into Currawinya National Park – of bilby and bird breeding fame – we now felt the sooner we got to Tibooburra the better.

Within an hour we were driving alongside the Wild Dog Barrier Fence. This used to be called the Dingo Fence and was originally built in the 1880s to keep dingoes out of the southeast where they had been been more or less eradicated. At 5614 km, it is the world's longest fence and extends from Jimbour near Dalby on the Darling Downs in Queensland to the Eyre Peninsula on the Great Australian Bight in South Australia. In Queensland, two-man teams check 300-km sections of the fence each week.
Hungerford was another of those places where I somehow expected more. It's really just the Royal Mail Hotel, dating from 1873. We had a coffee and filled up with diesel – the most expensive ever, at $1.96 a litre. But this is remote.
The lady who served us was more optimistic about the weather prospects. She was confident we would reach Tibooburra before the rain. And so we passed through a gate in the Dingo Fence into New South Wales.
Some things were unexpected on the next, Hungerford to Wanaaring leg of the journey.
We stopped to talk to the man on the bicycle near Mooleyarra. He was not young. From a sheep station near Ivanhoe in central west New South Wales, he was on his way to Quilpie, which he estimated would take him six days. He claimed to have cycled all over Australia and a sticker on his bike suggested we 'Ban all state governments'. Living in Queensland at the moment, I tend to agree with him. Bizarrely, right behind him was the rather pretentious (for these parts) entrance to a property.

For most of the way from Hungerford the Paroo River had been just to our right. We didn't see it either at Hungerford or Wanaaring, but here's a photograph of it I took earlier, at Eulo west of Cunnamulla. You'd be forgiven for not being able to distinguish it from several other chalky watercourses I've featured along the way. The track surface varied widely – we were in New South Wales – and there was no road kill. Was this because no road trains took this road, or because there were hardly any vehicles at all? I think we saw one in 100 kilometres.
Ten kilometres east of Wanaaring we turned west on the road from Bourke, the closest we got to this renowned town on the Darling River 800 km northwest of Sydney. I knew I was in a different world when I spotted a 'wild goat muster' sign. I was well and truly back o' Bourke after all, and about to head into further nothingnesss. Unfortunately a large rain cloud was passing over Wanaaring and soon made it's presence felt.
In Wanaaring General Store we had the least helpful, most unfriendly reception in the whole of our Outback trip. While my friend got told off for trying to pay for crisps at the post office counter, I asked if anyone had heard a recent weather forecast. I was told to look up: I assume the woman meant once I got outside the shop. She encouraged us to stay put for a while to allow the unsealed tracks to dry out, so we wouldn't mess them up for the locals. I didn't notice any reluctance to take our tourist dollars, however. We didn't feel like hanging around in Wanaaring and the road to Tibooburra wasn't closed. It soon stopped raining and the sun came out. There was another rain cloud moving across ahead of us but we avoided it by stopping for lunch soon afterwards. The western sky looked benign.

We came across some old friends, the Belties. An additional road hazard had been added to our list that day, too. I have no idea if these goats were feral or not, but they certainly appeared to be eating their way through this part of the world.
We were travelling by now in beautiful warm sunshine: there was lots of red earth but little else. We gradually became aware, however, of a massive black system slightly to the left of where we were headed. It seemed to be moving southeast but slowly. We were still some 100 kilometres away from Tibooburra. I found myself accelerating as I realised we were racing against time. 
I was aware that the road would eventually turn northwest towards Sturt National Park, away from the storm, and wanted to get there as quickly as possible. There'd been numerous small dry lakes marked on the map: we were south of the Bulloo River Overflow region where huge amounts of water wash over when the Bulloo is in flood so that the lakes, waterholes and swamps get filled. This is a terminal flood plain that collects all the excess water from the Bulloo River system. Suddenly the road turned south. We tried to find the old track, the one on our map, but it was barely discernible and we couldn't risk it. The detour was clearly marked as the new route, to avoid swampy ground, we concluded; and further away from the clear skies to the north. The now white stony track emphasised the blackening sky.
We completed the three-sides-of-a-rectangle diversion and were back on track. But then the road turned southwest again, for about six kilometres before the northwest turn. As we approached the turning, big drops fell out of the sky. We quickly changed drivers: jumping at lightning is not conducive to staying on the road. Despite heavy rain, the track remained OK for a while although the landscape was visually diminished by the downpour. Inevitably the track deteriorated as it got wetter. The wheels were noisily churning up clods of earth, some of which were projected over the roof to land on the windscreen. The temperature had dropped from 27 to 17 degrees.

We came to the junction with the Gorge Loop Road into Sturt National Park which we'd earlier planned to take. But now the only thing that mattered was to safely negotiate the shortest possible distance (about 25 km) to Tibooburra on what felt at times like an ice rink. Someone had driven along ahead of us. We watched his tracks veer off at times as he'd lost control. This wasn't enjoyable. This wasn't in the scheme of things. What of tomorrow's plan for walking in Sturt and a leisurely drive to Cameron Corner – where three states meet?
The rain became lighter, as did the sky; my mood became darker, as did the day. The landscape in the approach to Tibooburra was, frankly, bleak. By the time we checked in at Toole's Family Hotel in Briscoe Street and unloaded everything muddily into our cabin, there was nowt for it but to hit the bar. 

We chatted to a worker from the oil and gas fields of Noccundra north of the border; to two couples who had driven from Cameron Corner. No one seemed to have come from Wanaaring except us: I surmised our route had already been closed. There was a lot of speculation about weather and road conditions tomorrow. We were all willing the rain to stop as soon as possible, but it was still falling steadily when we turned in for the night. 

June 29, 2013


Since Wednesday I've been feeling rather sad.

Not because I agreed with Julia Gillard's policies necessarily. Or because I found her simp├ítica. Or because I know there won't be another female prime minister in Australia for a long time. Or because until this week it was largely overlooked how much legislation her minority government managed to pass, against the odds, during her three-year tenure. Or because I acknowledge that it was necessary for her to be replaced in order that Labor stand a better chance of winning the federal election. Or because I regret the emphasis placed upon her political ambition rather than her commitment to the Australian Labor movement and her country.

No, it's because there is something deeply disturbing and debilitating about the way she has been treated as prime minister over the last three years, and the fact that most Aussie women just let it happen. I have heard very few of them even complain about it. They certainly didn't stand up and shout about it. Far, far worse, however; they let their men folk get away with it. They heard the comments in their friends' backyards while they stood cosily around the barbecue. They waved their 'Ditch the Witch' placards at Tony Abbott's anti-carbon-tax rally. What they should have have been doing was worrying deeply about the terrible example being set to their sons and daughters, but especially their sons.

Aussie women just got on with it... with life. That's what you do here. In the face of adversity, you get on with it. As Julia Gillard did, many many times, until last October when Tony Abbott sank to new depths of hypocrisy and the cork shot out of the bottle*. Her speech went global within hours, but it took the Aussie press at least a week to cotton on to the fundamental issues provoked by the Prime Minister's impassioned outburst.

The issues have been raised again now she is gone, not only from political office but from political life. Now everyone is condemning political vilification and the denigration of politics in Australian society. Babies and bathwater, stable doors and bolting horses come to mind. It's no good bemoaning the fact that male blue-collar workers in the cities and rednecks in the bush just aren't ready for a female prime minister. You've missed the opportunity to celebrate Australian's first woman leader. Which isn't to say she shouldn't have been criticised if she didn't do a good job, had that been the case**. Whatever your political persuasion, that fact should have been a cause for celebration in a mature democracy.

For a hundred years this nation has wanted to punch above its weight on the world stage. Many factors contribute to such entitlement: articulate, reasoned people in positions of political power; care and support for all members of society; respect for and action on global issues; scientific excellence; guardianship of the planet; and the protection of an individual's rights.

Kevin Rudd's tribute to Gillard as 'a standard bearer for women in our country' sounded rather hollow to me. I have been appalled by the antics of politicians and the language used in the chambers of government in this country since the last election. Unless the people rise up and change this sad state of affairs then it is a truism that they get the leaders they deserve. The people's lack of engagement has in part contributed to a few outstanding members in the last parliament hanging up their hats.

Australia a liberal, progressive society? Some way to go, I think.

June 28, 2013

Outback: Charleville to Thargo and beyond

click on pix to see them big
At 5 am I was far too excited to go back to sleep until the harp at 6. We got up and got on. It was still dark of course, but better to be heading south, however slowly, than hanging around for dawn. We crawled and peered, eyes darting. Others had not been so careful: there were recent victims on the killing trail. By 7 the sky was the same colour as the soil.
Exactly halfway between Charleville and Cunnamulla on the Mitchell Highway is Wyandra, our picnic breakfast stop. In the campsite bikies were brushing their teeth; and by the road there were funny beasts that resembled – at the time – a cross between a turkey and a sheep (Guinea Fowl). My eyes had already been imagining that bushes and stumps were roos, so anything was possible.
On the way to Charleville I had felt the landscape was not outbacky enough; there was too much vegetation and it was too tall. Now the sky was bigger, there were fewer trees and emus were stepping out. However, it was still too... civilised somehow.
By Cunnamulla, which has an intriguing welcome sign, we were desperate for coffee. I wandered into the Club Boutique Hotel, not realising it was being renovated. A nice lady called Peieta stopped what she was doing and made us a cup – even though the place had to be shipshape by the following day when a film crew arrived – and let us use her wi-fi to resuscitate the mapping system on the iPad that had given up the ghost a few kilometres out of Charleville, much to the consternation of my friend. We chatted for a while before leaving her to it and pressing on to Thargomindah along the Adventure Way, aka the Bulloo Developmental Road. If you're looking for accommodation in this area, give the Club Boutique Hotel a try. Peieta's done a good job restoring the hotel to its former glory.
On the way out of town we stopped by the Warrego River, which looked in rather better shape than it had in Charleville.
The landscape was definitely looking more the part; the mercury was rising; and cows had settled in the shade.
Mulga is a relatively small tree (6-9 metres) well suited to arid zones. It's upward-reaching branches catch every last drop of rain; its leaves are leathery. It grows mainly in red soil and on sandy or stony plains: the soil type determines its growth and habit. The wood is hard and is used by Aborigines to make implements. It makes excellent fence posts and burns cleanly giving out a lot of heat. If cows can't find grass to eat during a drought, they are quite partial to mulga... as well as Leopardwood and Emu Bush.

Along the Adventure Way there are interesting diversions.
Winery? On such parched earth?
We chose birdwatching. We thought we saw a Hall's Babbler. I was tempted to walk out into the sand, although the two were not connected.
This sign surprised me. I don't think I've ever seen a signpost to a litter bin before. Ever. And why there?
Not far from Thargomindah is Lake Bindegolly National Park. We stopped for lunch but unfortunately didn't have time to walk to the Lake itself. And the flies, the flies. We could see birds on the Lake through the binocs, and, from our hummocky viewpoint, the car finally looked as if it was in the Outback.
Two Wedge-tailed Eagles sat by the roadside, hoping for roadkill and an easy meal.
Thargomindah; a name I associate with weather forecasts and the Australian 'long A'. How many times on my travels have I expected a sizeable town and found a sleepy, overgrown village? My impression of Thargo was not helped by a considerable search for a public toilet. The Bulloo River, sluggish and milky, was split into two, and Little Corellas ganged noisily above us.
Then it was time to leave sealed roads behind as we travelled down part of The Dowling Track, which was busier than expected. This Track runs from Quilpie to Bourke (as in 'back o Bourke') in New South Wales and was named after explorer and pastoralist Vincent Dowling who traced the courses of the Paroo and Bulloo rivers. I had initially searched for accommodation in Thargo but then I discovered Outback Beds (http://outbackbeds.com.au). And so it was that our next night's accommodation was at Kilcowera, a remote cattle station. With hindsight, I wish it had been two.
We were the guests of Toni and Greg. We stayed in the basic but comfortable Shearers Quarters. Our bathroom facility was a small block out the back where hot water was delivered at 47 degrees from the Great Artesian Basin 368 metres below. My friend got terribly excited at the prospect of geothermal showers. But first we drove to Cardenyabba Lagoon. To our great disappointment there wasn't much birdlife, with the exception of a squadron of pelicans returning, we assumed, to Lake Wyara in Currawinya National Park. The reflections and the sunset were equally as impressive. You can camp down by the Lagoon – open fireplace and wood supplied.
We sat down to a hearty supper with Toni and Greg and were given food for thought when I asked where the Outback began. I was pleased that Brisbane seemed a world away. Later, there were so many stars in the Milky Way it looked like cloud. We slept deeply in the perfect silence.

The following morning we got up early to visit Red Hole. Often we were being watched. (Bottom below: a Nankeen Kestrel.)
If we'd had a full day at Kilcowera Station we could have driven to Lake Wyara, a saline lake shared by both the Kilcowera property and the Currawinya National Park. It is the breeding site of thousands of migratory birds and pelicans, swans, shags and terns. We'd have learned a lot more about this 49,377-hectare station, too. When planning a trip of this kind, you research the possibilities, talk to people if you can and make choices. You win some, you lose some; and then you can make better recommendations to fellow travellers. So, if you pass this way, stay at least a couple of nights at Kilcowera Station.

But us, we hit the road again.