November 27, 2013

Sledging at the Gabba

There's an awful lot I don't know about cricket. I wouldn't know a beamer from a full toss, or square leg from silly mid-off. And until last weekend I thought sledging was something you did down a snowy slope.

I'd actually rather watch football or rugby than cricket. But sometimes I get quite excited about the Ashes. It's proper cricket – subtle and almost intriguing – not that garish Twenty-20 or ODI stuff. And there's nothing quite as satisfying as beating the Aussies, especially on their home turf. That's largely because, as someone who shall remain nameless once said: 'The Australians: surly in defeat, overbearing in victory'.

There's already been an Ashes series this year: England won 3-0 (+ 2 draws) in July and August in the UK. Now there's another in Australia, which seems too soon but it's all to do with breaking a biennial sequence that meant there was always an Ashes series in Australia before a Cricket World Cup.

The first Test began in Brisbane last Thursday. At the Gabba, which is not, in fact, the most welcoming of venues, for fans or visiting cricketers. On the first day the Aussies chose to bat but didn't do very well, and were all out for less than 300. The English did worse the next day and ultimately, by the end of the fourth day's play, were well and truly thrashed, beaten by a humiliating 381 runs.

Despite the Aussies' almost-certainty of victory on Sunday, when we were at the Gabba, they indulged in a lot of sledging, defined as a practice whereby players insult or intimidate an opposing player in order to wreck his concentration so that he underperforms. It's all done with good humour, insiders claim. Just light-hearted banter.

It didn't look like that at the weekend. We had taken binoculars with us, and my friend studied the sledging tactics of Aussie fast-bowler Mitchell Johnson, in action against England's batsmen. My friend described hostility and aggression etched on Johnson's face, and what appeared to be verbal abuse hurled at every opportunity when within earshot of the batsman. Then Aussie captain Michael Clarke was caught on a stump microphone threatening James Anderson with a broken arm from Johnson's fierce bouncers. Clarke was subsequently fined by the International Cricket Council for his offensive language and gestures.

During this Test match there had been extensive general abuse of Stuart Broad, who took six Australian wickets in the first innings. The Courier Mail sank to new depths of churlishness by refusing to mention Broad's name in their cricket coverage, instead listing him as T27YMPB (the 27-year-old English medium-pace bowler). The booing was deafening when he took to the field on Sunday, and the chants unrepeatable. The Aussies' antagonism originated during a match earlier in the year when Broad didn't 'walk' following a controversial 'not out' decision. England then won, by fewer runs than Broad made after he stayed.

If Johnson's manner of bowling and Clarke's behaviour were light-hearted, I wouldn't like to see what they do when Australia are losing. Aussie-Brit needling is commonplace, expected, and never takes long to surface. It had been exacerbated by the Broad incident, and this combined with serious pressure on the Aussies to win their first Ashes match since 2010 and their first Test since January. Serious storms were brewing around the Gabba, and breaks in play did nothing to ease the tension.
Four against one
I've no idea what's going on here
Spidercam follows man with mopper-upper gadget   
The Barmy Army retained their sense of humour, however. Even as England faced dire defeat, they continued to sing God Save Your Queen to the Aussies next to them in the stands.

On Monday, we heard that Jonathan Trott was returning to England as a result of a long-standing stress-related illness. He is by no means the first professional cricketer to suffer in this way. During the first innings in Brisbane Trott was singled out by Aussie David Warner as 'pretty poor and weak'. No one is suggesting that sledging was responsible for Trott's departure, but surely it can't have helped a man in a dark place.  

I'm sure undermining your opponent is common practice throughout sport. According to Wiki, the term sledging originated at the Adelaide Oval in the Sixties. This week I heard someone claim 'The Don' Bradman did it, but perhaps not quite as we know it. Except, I didn't know it, at all. If it's such common practice, why has there never been the kind of debate we've heard this week? Did Botham sledge?

As Johnson promises more of the same in Adelaide, I appear to be the only person requiring more respectful service to be resumed. It is cricket, after all. And I don't like a nasty taste with my Pimm's.

November 23, 2013

Where does the Outback begin?

Before we set off for the Outback, I thought we might be there by the end of the first day, 750 kilometres west of Brisbane, in Charleville. As we drove the last leg of the Warrego Highway, however – the 190 kilometres from Mitchell – there were far too many tall trees. So, where does the Bush become the Outback?
Charleville is a sizeable town, with a station, airport and several tourist attractions. I liked it a lot but it wasn't Outbacky enough. From there we headed south to Cunnamulla, west to Thargomindah, then more south, towards the New South Wales border. By now there were definitely landscapes, colours, vegetation and critters screaming 'Outback!'. And we were unquestionably back o' Bourke.
Black Kite
Little Corellas
We stayed on an enormous cattle station* off the Thargo-Hungerford Road. It was so big we didn't see any cows; we showered in geothermal water pumped from hundreds of metres below ground; and the night sky was a star-gazer's dream. This was the Outback, no question.
Once in New South Wales, the road due west from Wanaaring to Tibooburra and the Corner Country felt very remote indeed. I don't remember passing another car in 200-odd kilometres. There may have been one, but in fact the road was almost certainly closed since we were heading into a massive storm that produced the hairiest hour of the entire trip. The dirt road was transformed into a skating rink after 10 or 15 minutes of heavy rain, and we were churning up mud that flew up and over the back of the car on to the windscreen.
We'd had our first Where does the Outback begin? discussion with locals by the end of day 3. We knew for sure by then that it is further west than Charleville! Red dirt says Outback; and acknowledging oncoming drivers who are few and far between; and having to be alert all day, not just at dawn and dusk, for wildlife leaping (roos) or striding (emus) into the road, or cattle just standing and staring in the middle of it, not to be moved; and long distances between towns, with more Black Kites or Little Corellas than people once you get there; and too many flies that appear the moment you take an apple out of the esky.

For many travellers, the Outback starts beyond a certain town, whether it be Longreach, Windorah, Dubbo, Broken Hill or Port Augusta (heading north in South Australia); or a river such as the Murray; or a road such as the Newell Highway or the Dowling Track. 

Our furthest-west point should have been Cameron Corner – where South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland meet – but road closures scuppered that plan, and necessitated a quick getaway from Tibooburra at first light on the third day there in order to keep to schedule and reach Quilpie.

From a vantage point in the Sturt National Park we looked out towards the Strzelecki Desert, where I wanted to be headed. It was an ambition too far, however. I realised at this point that Outback should mean merciless sun: grey can be kind of desolate.
Kangaroos were with us much of the way. One person's answer to the Outback question was that, to him, it meant live roos rather than dead ones. Fast straight sealed roads and road trains cause carnage. We'd been warned, but it's still awful to see dead animals in such numbers. The Outback means carrying a sharp knife or a shotgun, for finishing off those animals not fortunate enough to be killed instantly. We weren't up for that. I agonised, having passed a victim still moving, about whether there might be a joey still alive in a pouch. What could we possible do if we found one? Take it in the car to goodness knows where? Our short-wave radio had a range of less than 50 kilometres so we were unlikely to be able to contact an animal rescue service even if there was one. The Outback is harsh and grown-up and you have to become resilient. It is also extraordinary. Watching a feral tabby share roadkill with an eagle at least twice its size was something I won't forget.

Re-entering Queensland, we approached the Channel Country, a weird and wonderful paradox. The countless dry channels are shallow and almost ghostly. You can't help but wonder how they would look in the Wet, when the whole region becomes inundated... such that you can't drive around at all. 
The Outback at this stage meant rivers with names made famous by weather reports as much as history: Cooper Creek**, Thomson and Barcoo. (Beyond the Barcoo is a hell of a lot more remote than back o' Bourke.) By Windorah there was a new ingredient: sand dunes! How I loved it out there. How quickly we had got used to few people and unfamiliar ways.
Plane in the back yard
Pink and blue
Oil well on the Cooper Developmental Road
400-km post run twice weekly from Quilpie
Track doubling as landing strip
 Outback bridge style (over Cooper's Creek)
Warning at Windorah
Lawless in Longreach
Barcoo River by Welford National Park
Ghost Gums
The Outback is driving long distances along the same road. From Wanaaring to Tibooburra is 228 kilometres and Google Maps estimate that it will take five hours and 37 minutes. If you ask for directions, there are only five instructions, and three of those are the same:
Wanaaring NSW
1. Head southwest on Bourke-Hawker Gate South toward Nardoo Rd
131 km
2. Continue onto Cut Line
15.8 km
3. Continue onto Bourke-Hawker Gate South
26.7 km
4. Turn right to stay on Bourke-Hawker Gate South
53.3 km
5. Turn right onto Silver City Hwy
600 m
Tibooburra NSW

Huge stretches of it looked like this:
In fact, Google Maps – and they are not the only ones – are out of date. You can no longer take the Cut Line, which is a shame because it's a great name. The Bourke-Hawker Gate South road has been detoured via a track with no name. Perhaps it's to avoid the marshy country of the Bulloo River Overflow. 

The interior of the Australian continent is sometimes referred to as the GAFA – the Great Australian F**k All. I couldn't disagree with this description more. There might be few settlements, and not much wildlife that you can see. But the landscape is ever-changing: the colour of the soil and its composition (stonier or not); the colour of the grass, the height of the shrubs and occasional tree. There are dry lakes and swamps, vermin-proof fences and gates, dry creeks and waterholes, bores and oil fields. The weather evolves across an enormous sky and sunset effects extend for at least 180-degrees.

The Outback is also a state of mind. Someone once said that your heart will tell you when you're in the Outback, and I think that may be true. For that, you'll need to be receptive, and excited not apprehensive. And pragmatic, a bit tough, well prepared and flexible, because not everything will go according to plan. Listen to the locals and heed their advice. Enjoy your own company but be prepared to chat in shop and pub bar. And worship in the temple of the natural world.

I can't wait to go back. I want to drive the Birdsville Track; and the Min Min Way from Winton to Mount Isa. I'd look out for the Min Min lights, which glow mysteriously without known cause, and withdraw as you approach. No one has ever reached or identified them and returned to tell the tale. For the Outback is not without its myths. And I want to trek through the Strzelecki Desert to Innamincka and thence, hopefully, to Cameron Corner. And down the Silver City Highway to Broken Hill. And across to Lake Eyre – when it's full, natch – and stay in the Underground Motel at Coober Pedy. 

I've felt drawn to the Outback ever since I first flew over the centre of Australia in 1995. Now I've been, it is calling me back. Of hundreds of photographs, this, probably more than any other, says Outback to me.

* Kilcowera Station is part of the Outback Beds network. You'll get a warm welcome and a great insight
** Cooper or Cooper's, take your pick
For posts on individual stages of our Outback trip, see blog for June, July and August 2013