October 25, 2014

Outback 2: Bourke to Moree

We had decided to fit in a detour to Lightning Ridge on our way to Moree. So an early start was essential: thanks, Willy Wagtail, for the alarm call. (I could easily have stayed in North Bourke another day, by the way.) We'd already sussed a bakery that opened early enough for coffee and croissants now we were back in relative civilisation. I persuaded my friend that we should take time to eat it by the Darling rather than on the move. There was stillness and early-morning light, you see. Birds were at their ablutions.
It's about 300 kilometres from Bourke to Lightning Ridge, and we had to move fast if my friend was to have enough time looking at opals and we were to reach Moree before dark. We travelled along highways I'd never heard of – Kamilaroi (from the 'Great Divide to the Great Outback') and Castlereagh – and through equally unknown towns, such as Brewarrina and Walgett. Further along the Kamilaroi beyond Walgett is Wee Waa. What a splendid name. Coonabarabran is another one, near the Warrumbungle National Park. These places were much too far south of our route. Their names are the kind you have to practise before you can use with confidence, and even then you get the emphasis wrong. Some of my Aussie friends still fall off their chairs when I try to say Capalaba, a suburb of Brisbane. Which 'a' would you accent?

I drove the Brewarrina to Walgett stretch and have not a single photo to show for it. In fact, the whole day was ever-so-slightly disappointing. After what I'd read about Lightning Ridge – how once you've been you never want to leave; and how it's quirky and different and special, which made me think Nimbin with opals – I found it ordinary, scruffy in places, with a wide main drag like a thousand others. 'Lightning Ridge is a place you'll talk about the rest of your life', claims the Kamilaroi travel guide. Well, I might, but not necessarily in a good way. For one thing, I saw the most beautiful opal stud earrings that were unusually red, and I left town without them.
If you're after a black opal, it's worth doing a bit of research before you go. There are lots of shops and 'galleries', and you might otherwise spend ages wandering from one to the next. There are different kinds of opal: you need to familiarise yourself with solid opals and doublets and triplets (http://www.opalsdownunder.com.au/
learn-about-opals/introductory). As with most precious or semi-precious stones, the more you pay, the nicer you get. We spent quite a while in just two shops, my friend searching for rock samples that included rough opal, and me admiring polished stones set in jewellery, unusual pieces preferably. This seemed to me to be the nicest shop by far.
Then we visited the Walk In Mine, which dates from the 1960s. Here you can get a good idea of the risky conditions in which opal miners sought to make their fortunes. Hard hats are provided; but it's probably not a place for the claustrophobic. (The second picture below is not the way visitors get in and out!)
We had to drive south to join the Gwydir Highway, north of Walgett. A few metres beyond the junction was a wonderful view of a farm, to our right. It had all the components – homestead, outbuildings, silos, machinery, animals. But I didn't make my driver stop. Why do I mention this? Because I recall a similar situation on our last Outback trip. In one of those Darling Downs towns – Dalby, perhaps – where there are lots of farm machinery outlets. A row of brand new shiny tractors were on display, and in front of them was a large puddle in which their reflections were symmetrically mirrored. I haven't forgotten the photograph that never was; and here was another whizzed-by opportunity. I'm not obsessing. It's just that you know when you 'see' a photograph with massive potential, and you'll always wish you'd gone back. How many times could I use a nice farm as a scene setter? Better move on.

We'd had the highway vs back tracks debate. Highway won, for speed. I tried to be enthusiastic about the country we were passing through. But it wasn't Outback. Interestingly, there tended to be forest on one side of the road and cleared land on the other. We often debate as we travel around this country whether or not woodland is original. I am currently reading The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia by Don Watson – an excellent book – and have to conclude this was probably not. The trees were taller than we'd seen since the Wadis of Birdsville. How long ago that seemed already. There were many large trucks on the road – and still a sizeable amount of roadkill.

Our question at this stage of the trip was, where does the Outback end? Sulphur-cresteds and Galahs seemed to have replaced flocks of Little Corellas. There was no signage warning of 'roos on road' or a tight bend ahead. Emus were on the wrong side of fences keeping sheep in their paddocks. Earlier in the day stretches of the road had obviously been upgraded from 'developmental': that is, there was a central strip that had relatively recently had its gravel verges sealed.

About 75 kilometres northeast of Walgett is the town of Collarenbri. We brewed a cuppa by the Barwon River where the backlit grass heads were stunning. Pause for self-indulgence, following my farm deprivation.
As we got nearer to Moree a storm was brewing over flat plains. We only skirted the rain, but still benefitted from a rainbow.
By now we were in cotton country. We passed signs to the Collymongle Cotton Gin (Colly to its mates) from the Moree Road.
Moree is a large agricultural centre at the junction of five major roads. It has daily services to Sydney by plane and train, thermal baths, the largest pecan nut farm in the southern hemisphere, the Mehi River, and a history of flooding. We liked the place: it was green and tidy with smarter houses and a pleasant feel. We were staying at the Albert Motel in a quiet part of town. As we checked in to our large room, there was a brilliant sunset sky following the storm. 
The Albert is just round the corner from Moree's RSL, which is where we went to eat. My friend had never been in such a large Services Club, so we had a look around: the groovers on the dancefloor, the large array of poker machines and the bars, where glum-looking rugby fans were watching the Wallabies getting hammered by the All Blacks in round two of the Bledisloe Cup. 

We had to sign in as temporary members. At the desk there was sophisticated technology whereby a swipe of a driver's licence printed your signature as if to sanction a list of rules you hadn't seen – and presumably logged your details on their database – whether you liked it or not. 
So… the last night of our road trip, a fact I was trying hard to forget. I'm so bad at going home when I've been tripping. Awards this time went to the Bourke Bridge Inn (accommodation) and Birdsville (overall experience). Happy times.

October 21, 2014

No way to stage a big game

I've attended several sporting fixtures in the last almost-five years in Australia.

I've been to Lang Park (aka the Suncorp Stadium) and The Gabba in Brisbane many times. I've been to the Olympic Stadium (in Sydney), but not the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground). Not yet. I've watched The Queensland Reds ('Super Rugby' Union); Brisbane Roar (football); Brisbane Lions (Australian rules football); and rugby internationals between old rivals the Wallabies and the All Blacks. Unfortunately I have yet to witness a State of Origin (Queensland vs New South Wales) rugby league clash. Oh, and I've endured two days of Ashes cricket, one in a good year, and one in a bad.

On Saturday night we were at Lang Park to see the third and final game in this year's Bledisloe Cup between the fierce Antipodean foes. The first match in Sydney had finished 12-12; and the All Blacks had thumped the Wallabies 51-20 in the second in Auckland. The Aussies couldn't have prised the Cup back from holders New Zealand even if they'd won in Brisbane, because a victory would have produced a series draw. They played better than they've done in a while: they scored the first try, and were 10 points clear well into the second half. But the All Blacks came back, in the dying moments of play, when it didn't seem possible. They scored a try in the last three seconds before the clock stopped, and the conversion was made in the 81st minute. 28-29. The Aussie agony was palpable. New Zealand have won 43 titles, against Australia's 12.

I was supporting the All Blacks, because I've admired them for years; as long as England aren't their opponents, of course; but even then I harbour more than a sneaking admiration. My friend was supporting our host nation, although ostensibly he was 'there to watch a good game of rugby'.

Since Colin Slade converted the last New Zealand try after the bell, huge numbers of Wallaby supporters streamed from the stadium immediately. We waited. A podium was hastily erected on the pitch; there were a couple of interviews, and Wallaby Adam Ashley-Cooper was presented with his hundredth cap.

And we waited… A couple of All Blacks came over to the stand below us to sign autographs, and a couple of Wallabies ran the length of the pitch – to keep warm? We'd seen the Cup at the opening ceremony, big and bright and, we assumed, ready for the presentation. Well, apparently not. We waited in vain to see each of the teams mount the podium and the All Blacks be re-presented with the Cup. Just because they are current holders doesn't mean they're not presented again, does it? We assumed officials were waiting for the end of ad breaks on the commercial channels covering the match.

We waited, and waited, and the crowd thinned out more and more. We had to conclude eventually that the event was over. No lap of honour; no lifting of the Cup by the winning side; no supreme moment of jubilation for their fans; just the fizzling out of a memorable match into disjointed uncertainty. What an anticlimax. And how unbefitting. I guess what we were hoping for happened at Eden Park in August. (We were on the Outback trip and only caught brief glimpses of the match in the RSL in Moree.) But if so, I think that took away from the last match and the culmination of the series. Fans have expectations.

On the subject of last matches… Something we just can't grasp here is the idea of several 'finals' leading to a 'grand final'. Final means ultimate, the end. There are playoffs between the top teams in the lower English leagues, for example, but they are semi-finals up until the last one, the final, the conclusion.

The creation of a great atmosphere at games here is somewhat thwarted by incessant, loud, often inane popular music blasted out right up to, and sometimes beyond kick-off, and then at every subsequent brief interlude – twixt try and conversion, during a drinks or injury break. And obviously throughout half-time. In Europe prior to a game, the crowd gees itself up by chanting. In the die-hard supporters' stands, the level of ingenuity and wit of the lyrics is impressive; and new material is often quickly created in response to incidents during a match by dedicated minds. Here, it's usually 'Bris-bane… [clap clap clap] Bris-bane… [clap clap clap]' or 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi, if you're lucky. On Saturday, it was 'Wall-a-bies, Wall-a-bies'. I think I may have heard something different, once, when the Roar played Gold Coast United… a jibe about the beach being closed.

When we went to watch our team, Manchester United, play the A-League All-Stars in Sydney last year, it seemed as if most of the 82,000 capacity crowd were red. But you couldn't hear a peep out of them prior to the whistle because of the loud musical drivel we had to endure. Actually, I don't think the Aussie United fans would have chanted anyway. It just doesn't happen in the same way here. I was so looking forward to being in the Stadium, and being United in our support, but instead the whole experience (apart from the final score, 5-1) was massively underwhelming. If I wanted to listen to loud music, I'd go to a different venue, thanks.

In our early experience of watching the Queensland Reds at Lang Park, we were surprised that the crowd had to be urged over the public address system to shout their support. They were chatting to their mates, eating chips, making arrangements, on their phones, trying to locate people. Not long ago, however, we watched the A-League Grand Final between Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers. I was supporting Brisbane, naturally, but I couldn't take my eyes off the Sydney supporters, the so-called Red and Black Bloc. They were far more impressive than any of the action on the field, which was a bit Second Division to be honest. There was perfectly co-ordinated flag waving and soaring voices, in unison, and a large repertoire of material. They stood up, sat down, turned around as one; and they never stopped. The best fans I've seen here by a long chalk.

Some of best supporters I've seen in Europe are Spanish football fans. They often have a band accompanying them to maintain a constant and motivational beat behind the chanting. Camp Nou, home ground of Barcelona, prides itself on its 'wall of sound'. In the English football league, it is sometimes the smaller teams' fans who supply the best vocals, for clubs such as Portsmouth or Plymouth.

Some fans are clearly obsessive. They stand in inclement weather, and sing their hearts out; they travel huge distances and spend vast amounts of money; they wait in line for tickets for hours, their phone-cradling shoulder frozen; they suffer massive disappointment and go back for more; and there is no option other than to support their team. But these people can create atmosphere by their very presence. And inspire others, both on and off the field.

I've got glimpses of that here. I think live State of Origin is essential for my further research. And I should probably spend more time in Melbourne.

October 16, 2014

Outback 2: back o' Bourke

At last, we were going to be back o' Bourke, literally. Both last year and this, we had been beyond the Barcoo, which is further back o' Bourke than the back o' Bourke, but I was excited about approaching Bourke from the west, the more remote side of town, the official Outback, by mythological definition.

We were awake early in Hungerford, having gone to bed early. We planned to make our own breakfast en route. Graham had already left on the mail run: he must have been up well before 6. How much longer will he want to run a pub and be the mailman over large distances in a remote region? How long will he be able to do those things? The Outback is steadily being depopulated: the further west you go (from the east coast) the greater the distances between settlements whose populations are dwindling, as the young choose not to follow in their parents' footsteps.

There was another state border to cross. I'm not sure exactly what I expect when crossing a state border but I am usually disappointed, often because a plethora of signs detracts from any subtle landscape changes (except on the Lions Road – see Cor, Barney!, January 2014). This border post was a bit bleak, in the cloud, with its faded signage.
One can only imagine the original mileage on the sign for Bourke was 100 kilometres out! Google maps predicts it takes four hours to drive a little over 200 km; and someone had mentioned the track was hard-going. It was tricky in places but not particularly arduous, especially with plentiful stops. We wanted to be in Bourke for lunchtime latest so we would have half a day there. A large bank of cloud was moving into Queensland, and soon we had sunshine. The first stop wasn't long off.
The birds above were new to us – Banded Lapwings, two females and two males. They appeared to be rather nervous creatures.

There was more standing water. Kangaroos mustn't like getting their feet wet, as they were leaping over it, while emus splashed through, although I have noticed that they avoid creeks. Their running fascinates me: no body part north of their legs moves. What do kangaroos find to eat on arid plains, we pondered? Someone told us later in New South Wales that drought is forcing them ever closer to habitation in search of food.

Yantabulla seemed deserted and derelict, except for a fire station. I jumped out of the car to photograph corrugated remains, but was sickened by the stench of rotting flesh. There was something ugly decomposing by the roadside.
And then a real treat: loads of Major Mitchell's, so engrossed in their bush melon feast they completely ignored us.
All holiday, I had been trying to capture goats, photographically: finally I managed it. I know feral goats are eating their way through Australia's vegetation, and I should probably have been shooting them in the literal sense, but I like them far too much.
I have no idea at all what this sign means. If anyone does know, please enlighten me in a comment at the bottom of the page.
There were cows in the middle of the road; and dead dogs strung up by the side of it. We observed this custom last year, but I still don't get it. Is it meant to be a deterrent to other ferals? This is what'll happen to you, mate, if I find you on my property. What is clear is that those who live back east have little grasp of the feral problem in the backblocks.
The pub in Fords Bridge had been recommended, but they couldn't supply a proper cup of coffee, even though it was coffee time. Most of their customers are workers who needed beer, not coffee, they explained. We drove on, but not before I'd studied vehicles growing in paddocks. We soon came across the Warrego River again. I think of it as a Queensland River, which it is, but it's also the northernmost tributary of the Darling, which it joins southwest of Bourke.
And so we reached Bourke, with its double excitement factor. Traditionally accredited with being on the edge of civilisation as defined by farming and settlement, it has the Back o' Bourke Exhibition Centre to prove it; and the town sits by the famous Darling River. On the outskirts of development, we came across our first white lines for what seemed like ages: I was not pleased to see them, for they heralded the end of the Outback.

The town grew up from 1862 to supply surrounding pastoral properties and export their wool. Bourke was the centre of this industry for more than a century. Paddlesteamers plied the Darling; Cobb & Co passed through town; and horse, bullock and camel teams transported provisions for a thriving settlement. It was at its most prosperous at the end of the 19th century, before declining and then reviving since the 1970s when the cotton industry developed.

We were staying in North Bourke, five kilometres north of the town itself and on our way in, but it was too early to check in. We went to Diggers on the Darling – not surprisingly, an old RSL club – for a much-needed coffee, before crossing the road to take our first look at the Darling. Despite a troubled history, it still struck me as a majestic, deeply significant river. I have a plan to follow it southwest from Bourke as it wiggles its way to Wilcannia. The Darling continues from there to Menindee, then more south to Wentworth where it meets the mighty Murray. Meanwhile, I was mesmerised by the abundance of pelicans and other waterbirds.
The Darling is Australia's third-longest river (after the Murray and the Murrumbidgee). It's headwaters are in Queensland's Darling Downs, but it is fed by many tributaries, including the Barwon, Little Bogan, Culgoa, Warrego and Paroo. The river was obviously of crucial importance to the nation's first inhabitants, then later to explorers, settlers and pastoralists. But it hasn't always thrived. Its flow has long been irregular – it dried up 45 times between 1885 and 1960 – long before irrigators made such demands; and in 1992 an algal bloom extended throughout its length. Locks and weirs have been constructed since the end of the 19th century to regulate flow, improve navigability and store water either for consumption or to regulate flow downstream. 
We wasted no more time before driving to the Back o' Bourke Exhibition Centre, which includes a visitor information office. I was looking for a t-shirt with the slogan 'I've been well back o' Bourke'. Needless to say, I didn't find it, and had to make do with a lousy sticker. We bought Hema's Outback New South Wales (because, despite the wonders of GPS tracking and iPad mapping, I love looking at a paper map when planning journeys); and The Penguin Henry Lawson Short Stories, the back of which claims: 'One of the great observers of Australian life, Henry Lawson looms large in our national psyche.' He frequently pops up in the history of Bourke.

The curved walls and flowing lines of the Exhibition Centre are intended to reflect the Darling, and the buildings are nicely designed. The founding of Bourke and the story of wool feature large. The exploits of explorers such as Charles Sturt and Sir Thomas Mitchell are chronicled, and concepts such as the early obsession with a vast inland sea, and differences in attitudes towards the land between Aborigines and settlers are explored. There are brilliant quotes, poems and personal anecdotes, because the Centre is a storytelling rather than an artefacts and reconstructions experience. If I were to be picky, I would say the volume of the audiovisual loops is too intrusive if you're after quiet contemplative reading. The Centre is well worth a visit nonetheless.

We continued back along the road on which we'd come into town, to the Bourke Bridge Inn, right by the first bridge over the Darling. When we did our usual voting at the end of the trip for best accommodation, food, experience, etc, this place came out top accommodation. Our room in the main house (there are also cabins) was spacious, comfortable and well furnished; the lighting was good but not harsh; we had balcony on two sides; and, most importantly, we could see the bridge and the river. We spent some time on the bridge: my friend, being an engineer, had construction to study; I had photographs to take. These activities were eventually curtailed by a storm, the first big clap of thunder making the pellies jump. Spectacular light and cloud are probably the only things that can distract me from my fear. The rain lent a softness to the riperian landscape.
There were so many pellies, but they were being watched.
That evening, we returned, through rain, to Diggers on the Darling for an agreeable supper. It was, however, a real pleasure to return to our room.

Charles Sturt wrote:
Let any man lay a map of Australia before him, and regard the blank upon its surface, and then let me ask him if it would not be an honourable achievement to be the first to place a foot at its centre.
And from Thomas Maslen, a former officer in the East India Company who famously produced a detailed map of the notional Inland Sea:
There is a mystery about the geography of Australia, which I venture to say has never had a parallel in any other country, and which is enough to excite the most extravagant curiosity in those whose studies have led them to a contemplation of the varied surface of our beautiful planet.
This post was last edited on 17 October 2014
With thanks to the Back of Bourke Exhibition Centre for some inspirational quotes