July 4, 2013

Trapped in Tibooburra

I heard the rain on the tin roof of the cabin during the night, and no one was surprised next morning to see large puddles and this...
click on pix to see them big
In the rather cold light – the maximum temperature was to be 10 degrees cooler than the previous day – we could see just how much of the road we'd brought into town with us.
We had planned to move on to Cameron Corner today. Originally our Outback trip was shorter: Charleville, Quilpie, Longreach and Carnarvon Gorge. That was before my friend looked at the map and decided he must go to the point where three states meet in the middle of nowhere. I went back to the drawing board and, several revisions later, came up with a longer itinerary. 

Cameron Corner was named after John Cameron who surveyed the Queensland border country in the 1880s. The only thing there apart from the Wild Dog Fence is the Cameron Corner Store which has all you'll need – accommodation, meals, fuel and a bar. They were very understanding when I called to say we couldn't make it. And so Cameron Corner goes back on the to-do list.

Tibooburra is the self-styled capital of the Corner Country of Outback New South Wales. Explorer Charles Sturt was the first European to pass nearby. He'd set out from Adelaide in August 1844, and in the heat of the summer made camp at Depot Glen south of Tibooburra which had the only permanent water for 100 kilometres. He stayed there nearly six for months, not daring to go on, not wanting to go back. Burke and Wills also came up this way nearly 20 years later. But the town wasn't built until the early 1880s when gold was found. The name may come from an Aboriginal word meaning place of heaps of rocks, after the remarkable granite outcrops. Pastoralism (sheep) replaced gold and now tourism and 4WDriving has brought the likes of us to this remote desert place.
This is Toole's Family Hotel where we stayed. They have a splendid long-haired cat who saw us home from the restaurant last night and settled on my bed for a while. The hotel also has a less than splendid – in my humble opinion – mural by Clifton Pugh. Rumour has it he painted it one day when he was holed up in Tibooburra during the wet. OK if you're happy to share the bar with visions of not particularly attractive naked figures while you sup your beer. The hotel was built in 1882, in the single-storey style we were becoming familiar with. The Albert Hall was not as we know it!
So, what to do in Tibooburra for the day now we weren't going anywhere? We thought about it over a coffee at TJ's Roadhouse where we bought fly nets and a new Outback map with 'heritage' – a popular word on the tourist trail – and other travel information. Outside, there's a Little Rosella in a cage by the door: his name is Barney. He says, 'Give us a scratch', but in all available space on the cage are the words 'I bite'. Allegedly, wary souls have been known to offer a credit card through the bars rather than a finger, unaware of Barney's other party trick – to snatch it. They then have to sheepishly ask in the shop if staff can retrieve the card from the bird.

We were told road closures were managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service office, so that's where we headed to find out the prognosis. The next road conditions report was at midday: nothing changed: and the next was at 4. There was enough information in the Parks office to keep me busy for hours. There were lots of specimens in jars, including Red-headed Mouse Spiders and a Mulga, or King Brown, Snake.
I learned all about ephemeral lakes, Wedge-tailed Eagles' eating habits and the speed at which kangaroos can move. And the fact that Western and Eastern Greys are not true desert animals. Their numbers have probably increased out here because of the availability of water in tanks for sheep. Western Greys have dark grey to brown fur with silver ear tufts and emit a strong odour. In true Aussie tradition, they are known as stinkers. There was geology and landforms, fauna and flora, history and Aboriginal culture.

Charles Sturt set out with 16 officers and men, 11 horses, 30 bullocks, 1 boat and boat carriage, 1 horse dray, 1 spring cart, 3 bullock drays, 200 sheep, 2 sheep dogs and 4 kangaroo dogs. The objective of the expedition was to find new grazing lands. He included a boat because he believed he would find a great inland sea. He had observed flocks of birds heading northwest from the Darling River at Bourke and due north from Adelaide. He plotted where the birds' flight paths crossed and travelled to that point. All he found was the Simpson Desert. As he was forced to give up in September 1845 through lack of water, he wrote:
'It is impossible to find words to describe the terrible nature of this dreadful desert. In a country so dry all efforts are abortive...'
We discovered from one of the rangers that the nearest access to Sturt National Park was not closed. She recommended walking a circuit from Dead Horse Gully camp ground, a couple of kilometres north of town.
The National Park has four distinct landscapes. Jump Ups are flat-topped hills that are also known as mesas (Spanish for tables). The Granites refers to 400 million-year-old boulders (above) littering the surrounds of Tibooburra that have been exposed from an igneous intrusion lying beneath sedimentary overlayers. Then there are the Gibber Plains, or 'stony rolling downs', covered with pebbles eroded from the Jump Ups and then worn smooth by wind and sand. And, finally, red sand plains and parallel dunes further west in the Park towards the Strzelecki Desert where I had planned to walk originally.

As always, there were interesting things along the way. The skeleton seemed almost pleasant after the roadkill. We surprised a Western Grey, and almost didn't spot the resting roos towards the end of our circuit. The bark belongs to the Western Bloodwood – so named because of the dark red sap this gum tree produces. Adapted to arid conditions, the trees predominate in the Granites and line the creek. Dead Horse Gully got its name when miners found two dead horses here and suspected they'd been poisoned. Horses were not well equipped to survive in such a harsh environment, however, and it's more likely they ate a poisonous plant when desperate for food.
 
We climbed a granite tor for the view, which was desolate and rather dispiriting I imagine if you were an early explorer suffering from scurvy and dehydration and Tibooburra wasn't in the middle distance. A Sturt moment. 
Sunlight caught wet slate following a brief shower.
As we went back into town after a picnic lunch beneath a Bloodwood, we noticed a caravan coming into Tibooburra from the north. The last road condition report of the day, however, opened no routes north or south. I wanted to follow the caravan to find out what state the road was in but was distracted by the Courthouse Museum next to the Parks office. It's worth a visit, having lots of information and artefacts from early settlement days. I was particularly struck by the description of life for women trying to do household chores in 45 degrees of summer heat and dust storms, with little water. The isolation of the stations meant an Aboriginal woman was most likely to help deliver their babies. As the children got older, the women would add teaching to their daily tasks. Although why on earth they bothered with starching and ironing is beyond me.

Come evening, the prisoners of Tibooburra congregated this time in the pub (the Tibooburra Hotel, also 1882) for supper. Grim lighting in the dining room, guys. There was much speculation and rumour. Our friend from the oil and gas fields had headed south first thing, but was back. Had he been made to turn around at some point on the Silver City Highway? He was revealing only that he'd been out of town for the day! A couple of young blokes had arrived from the north late morning. They reassured me we'd be fine as long as we took the first 20 kilometres carefully.

We both knew we had to leave the next morning. And, since we had to make Quilpie in a day (more than 500 km) to keep on schedule, we wouldn't be waiting for the road conditions report at 9 am. As we packed and got ready for bed, we had a different visitor, in the shower this time.


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