Monthly Archives: May 2014

Inspired by the Flinders Ranges

This landscape inspires art.

In Hawker, on the edge of the Flinders Ranges, the artist Jeff Morgan was inspired to paint a round panoramic mural of the Wilpena Pound landscape. The work is astounding. It is also unique. It is the only cyclorama, or 360 degree round panorama, depicting a real view as seen from one viewpoint. Jeff’s work allows the viewer to experience the view from St Mary’s Peak as he has seen it. And what a view! As I climb the wooden steps in the centre of the tower that houses the work, I am inspired. The vista is stunning and he has reproduced it faithfully, and yet in an interpretation that is his and his alone.

Viewing the panorama

Viewing the panorama

What an artistic challenge, but I should not be surprised. This country, the Flinders Ranges, inspires. Views stretch to the horizon in every direction. The scale belittles any mundane worries and petty cares. The ranges are majestic in the true sense. In shrinking our own self importance, I think they may they have the potential to inspire us to greater works than we could otherwise imagine.

Looking to the left on the drive out of Hawker, the land is flat and stretches into infinity towards the horizon. It is dotted with flinty silver, green and grey vegetation. To the right, the landscape is dramatically different. The land has rippled over millions of years under pressure from movements in the earth’s crust. Massive rocky ranges have been forced into existence. Ancient sea beds have been uncovered, and limestone eroded to allow pink, yellow and grey rock to emerge on the surface. We are on another planet.

Fossil finds

Fossil finds

We take a short detour off the highway to one of Howard’s special places, and clamber up a stony incline to search for the fossilised remains of the sea creatures who lived here many millions of years ago. The rocks here are said to be between 500 and 650 million years old. We find intricately etched fossilised remains that in the delicacy of their ancient patterns suggest a hidden artist’s hand. Then when we reach the top of the rocky outcrop and gaze at the 360 degree views, we marvel at the shapes carved into the earth by dried river beds and the deep pink and ochre hues of the distant mountain ranges. Is nature the greatest artist?

Fossilised designs

Fossilised designs

Lunch time brings us back to earth and we visit the Prairie Hotel at Parachilna where we sample the feral antipasto plate. Emu, goat, kangaroo and camel are transformed into tasty smoked sausage, pate and cured meats, eaten with soft damper style bread. The walls of the pub are hung with brightly coloured indigenous artworks. The inspiration for their dots, swirls and line work taken from the natural world around us.

We leave the bitumen for unsealed roads at Lyndhurst and watch for swirls of dust approaching in the distance from oncoming vehicles. The leaders call out warnings on the radio as motorbikes and the occasional ute approaches.

The ranges disappear behind us.  The horizon seems to become more and more distant, the land flatter and flatter. This is the Australian outback.

The sun sets in dark oranges, pinks and yellows that reflect back the more muted colours of the rock. The day ends at Marree, at the start of the Birdsville Track and tomorrow is another day.


Big sky country

We are driving into big sky country.   As we distance ourselves further and further from the coast, I begin to see a new side of this ancient land.


The drive from Hahndorf to Hawker today took us from genteel horse stations nestled in grassy green hills and dales to vast big brand vineyards, from high tech wind farms to deserted ghost towns, and finally into the bleak beauty of the Flinders ranges.   As the kilometres ticked by, the land around us flattened, broadened and gave way to bigger and bigger skies.

Wind farms

Wind farms

The country began to show its age.  It seemed to grow more weary from the centuries of battering by sun, wind, rain and of course by man. How to explain this?   In the lush green hills around Adelaide, there is still a freshness, a youthful exuberance.  Anything is possible.  As the land becomes more arid and widens into flat plains, it is as if it exhales.   It settles into a stable but long suffering existence.   It has seen it all.  Nothing can surprise it.

We passed many derelict stone built houses.   Monuments to the hopes and dreams of the past.       Their empty windows gazing out across windswept acres.   We come and go, the land lives on.

Terowie, like a ghost town

Terowie, like a ghost town

In the historic mining town of Burra, remnants of Cornish miners homes remain.  They are little more than caves dug out of the earth, with more in common with animal burrows than with 21st century homes.   This land does not give up its treasures easily.  It is not welcoming.   It demands resilience, fortitude and a spirit of never say die.

Miners' dugouts at Burra

Miners’ dugouts at Burra

There are memorials here to people who were made of sterner stuff.   People who could eke out a living from nothing.   I saw a signpost that marked the Herbig Family Tree, quite literally a tree that had once housed the Herbig family.  Man, wife and two children had lived in a hollow dug into the trunk of this 7 metre diameter giant.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression, dear reader, that these are depressing sights.  On the contrary, the country stirs feelings of wonder at the history of both land and its inhabitants.  It is a strong, fearsome beauty.  It is the beauty of the never ending story of struggle, victory and defeat; the never ending cycle of life.


The adventure begins

The alarm rang out at 5:30 am. It was an early start. We rushed through the last few tasks on the “Do Not Forget” list, left a list of phone numbers for our house sitter and loaded up the contents of the fridge in the back of the ute. I fumbled with the keys as we locked up the house. At last, at 7 am we were on our way.

Three utes were already parked together on the driveway when we pulled up. We were the last to arrive. Everyone was milling around laughing. This is Deans Marsh and I should not have been surprised to see that we were not allowed to slip away quietly without a sound.

Our friends, Dom and Suzanne had dragged themselves out of their warm bed to see us off. Dom handed out an eclectic survival package of essentials to each couple (shower cap, chocolate, elastic bands, fly strip, etc), while Suzanne in her pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers pressed a fresh persimmon and lime from their garden into our hands. “Lime for the Margaritas and a persimmon for your morning tea,” she whispered.


We all stood by our cars for a formal photo, said our last goodbyes and we were off.   “Channel 16”, called Olive as we pulled out of the gateway.  UHF radios were switched on and we carried out our first radio checks.   Howard and Beryl naturally took the lead, while Malcolm and Olive waited until Brett and Christine, Richard and I had followed before bringing up the rear.  It was if the old hands were gently herding us along the way.

We headed out through Colac and Camperdown, taking the road West.   At Mortlake, nearing the Grampians, I turned to Richard, “Do you know, this the furthest West I have ever been on the continent of Australia?  Better not tell Brett, he’s from West Australia, he won’t believe it!”

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that although I have travelled up the East Coast of Australia, I have never visited Perth in the West, or even Adelaide, the state capital of South Australia.  Everywhere we go from now on will be a totally new experience for me.

Along the way I marvelled at the Aussie town names.  Who came up with a name like Willalooka? A township with timeless stone buildings turned out to be called Hexham, named after a well known Northumberland village, who knows why?

Every town along the way celebrates or remembers something, the national collection of eucalypts, the Ansett museum, the famous Dergholm guinea flower.     Even the smallest town has something unique about it, some small source of civic pride.  In Coonalbryn, it is a roadside Belgian Waffle stall, selling authentic waffles made the way they make them back home in Liege. Beryl chatted for a while to the Belgian stallholder learning when and how he came to be a Belgian selling waffles in a small town in Australia.   Having made her contribution to Belgo-Australian relations, she then made her way back across the busy road with a plate loaded high with waffles, strawberries and cream. The waffles were soon devoured and I believe they were deemed worthy of both Belgian and Coonalbryn pride.

There were many large stations farming this country in the early days of settlement.  Along the way, we spotted an old Western District homestead that had been rebuilt for tourists and was well worth a visit on another trip.  “They even have their own lock up prison cell there”, called out Olive on the radio.   “They needed to have somewhere to put the farmhands when they got out of control”.   “You’d better get Malcolm to build you one at home”, came the quick reply.

The countryside was green and lush as we drove through Western Victoria and it was easy to see why this has always been prime cattle and sheep country.   As we drove into South Australia, the land grew flatter.  Vineyards stretched as far as the eye could see, their golden brown autumn colours muted in the afternoon light.

Finally, the flat land gave way to the beautiful rolling Adelaide hills and we drove into the busy town of Hahndorf, the oldest German settlement in Australia.   Hahndorf makes the most of its German origins with Apfelstrudel, Bratwurst and Weizenbier all on offer.   It’s easy to see why the town is so busy with tourists on a warm Autumn weekend.


We drove almost 700 km today, taking the best part of 9 hours to reach Hahndorf.   It was a long day and it is now drawing to a close.  As I write this post for you, dear reader, it helps me to reflect on the day and what will I take from it.   Today, passing through all those small, proud towns, it reminds me how it is truly human nature to love the place you live, to find something grand and memorable in it – something to celebrate with each other and with travellers passing through.

A quick shower?

“Get down. No! I don’t believe it. Who invented this! I bet they’re laughing now.”

The battle of the camping shower cubicle is underway and Richard is losing.

You can buy pop up shower cubicles online that provide a quick and easy solution to bathroom privacy when camping. They arrive nicely packed away in a small circular bag. Neat and unobtrusive. No one warns you that as soon as the bag is partly opened they take on a life of their own, spring out of their enclosure, click into shape and stand imposingly in your living room. Having admired the design and tested out the places to hang shampoo bottles and other essentials, you check the bag for instructions. Nothing. Not even a diagram or a pidgin English translation. How do you get the now six foot plus tent back into that little round bag? It resists every attempt to twist, fold, push and pull. We battle into the night.

I lie in bed, knowing it is still there, waiting for me. In my fevered sleep I have visions of thousands of these creatures blowing like tumbleweed across the Australian outback. Forever free to roam. Who can tame them? They want to be free.

The shower cubicle becomes part of the family. It stands in the corner of the kitchen, giving us the evil eye as we breakfast in the morning. It greets us with a baleful stare when we return to snack at lunchtime.  Jack, our Labradoodle, refuses to go near it after it lunges drunkenly towards him as he inches past to get to his favourite sleeping spot in the sun. We move it temporarily to the laundry, but can still feel its brooding, dark presence.

“Please Richard, we’ve got to get it back into its bag.”

We wrestle it to the ground. Richard holds it down, while I consult the great modern gurus of YouTube. I flick through the videos. A relaxed American tosses the cubicle into the bag with a flick of his expert wrist. A diminutive Asian lady is submerged in black nylon, but finally twists and turns until the beast is laid to rest. A laconic Aussie gives a step by step demonstration of the dark art.  It begins to make sense.

I shout out instructions to Richard. “Fold! Twist inwards! Push down!”  Miraculously we tame the beast and it nestles once again in its little black bag.  We look at each other.  Will we dare let it out again?  What price cleanliness?

PostScript: I should acknowledge here that we have two exponents of the dark art of shower wrestling in our convoy. We will need to call on their help, I have no doubt. Olive and Christine, we salute you.

Ready, set…..getting ready to go

The night was cold, wet and windy. The rain lashed down outside the cosy farm house, and we agreed it was surely time to escape the Otways winter for the dry and dusty red centre.

With two weeks to go, the ten travellers in our convoy met for a pre-trip planning session. Most of the group knew each other already, a few introductions were made and we got down to the important business of eating, drinking and trip talking.

Three couples are experienced outback travellers, Howard and Beryl, Malcolm and Olive, Max and Heather.  Between them they have travelled many thousands of kilometres across Australia and have had their share of mechanical breakdowns, tyre blowouts, snakes, dingoes, rain, wind and everything else the Red Centre can throw at them.  But they still keep going back for more.

The innocents abroad … I mean the less experienced pairs are Brett and Christine, who have been camping with their family for many years, but not four wheel driving in remote locations, and of course Richard and me.  Well, I’ll be honest, we are the newbies who ask the naive questions!  Especially me… I’ve not done a lot of camping and this will be the first time I have left the safety of the urbanised East Coast of Australia for the outback.

As we tucked into the warming vegetable soup, followed by Beryl’s sausage rolls with Jenny’s amazing tomato sauce, questions and answers mixed with tall stories around the dinner table.

“What do you do about washing your clothes out there? Are there laundry facilities at the camping spots?”

“Yes, in some. The rest of the time just jiggle your undies in a bucket of water and you’ll be fine. We’ll all smell the same by the end of the desert trip.”

“Does anyone know how to fold away the pop up camping shower cubicle?”

We were glad to hear Christine has mastered this feat of manual dexterity.

“Do people really sit on top of the Big Red sand dune (the biggest in the Simpson Desert) with drinks and snacks to watch beginners try to make their way up?”

“Yes, it’s entertainment for the locals, but don’t worry, you’ll have no problem getting up there.”

Some answers were comforting, others less so.  We began to feel our inexperience quite intensely.

After dinner, Howard unrolled the map of Australia and the group gathered around to trace the route we would follow from the South to the North of this massive continent.

The start and end dates are fixed.  Our leaving date, 17 May, is non-negotiable and was set many months ago.  We will leave as soon as Howard’s bulls are put in with the females for their allotted nine weeks a year.   This momentous event happens at the same time each year, mid May.   This is a little later than our own Limousin bulls, Stan and Galli, who wait patiently each year for Anzac Day for the same reason and who are already wooing and cooing their way around our paddocks.   I love the fact that we are planning our trip around the farming calendar.   That’s life in the country!

The target destination is Adelaide River.   We plan to be there for the Adelaide River Races on 31 May, another immovable date.   (An outback horse racing meet will be a first for me.) But wait, you may be thinking that Adelaide is on the South coast of Australia?   That’s true, Adelaide is a Southern city, but Adelaide River where we are heading is actually close to Darwin on the North coast.

So we have 13 days to travel approximately 4000 kilometres, including the Birdsville Track and the Simpson Desert.   This gives us some contingency, but essentially we will have to be on the road, making good progress to the North every day.

After the races, the convoy breaks up and we go our separate ways.   Howard and Beryl will stay up North and drive through the Gulf across to Queensland.   Olive and Malcolm will tag along with them.  Max and Heather are at the start of a longer trip and will return to Birdsville to pick up their caravan before heading back North with the creature comforts a caravan can offer.   It’s not practical to take the caravan across the Simpson so they are leaving it in a secure location there on our way up.   Brett and Christine have commitments back at home that mean they will most probably have to take the quickest route South.

I have never seen the iconic Uluru (Ayers Rock) so we will be taking a detour to the West from Alice Springs to visit Kings Canyon and the Rock before we head home.

We all talk through our plans and finally as the group breaks up we agree to meet at 7am on Saturday 17 May to head off on our adventure.

I will update the blog as often as I can along the way so that you, dear reader, can come along with us and share our Red Centre experience – at least virtually!


Tea with Howard

When Howard talks about the desert, he shifts sideways slightly in his seat and looks out into the distance.  It is as if he leaves the room where we are talking and is immersed for a few moments in the sights and sounds of the remote Australian outback.

We are sitting around the kitchen table in his comfortable Victorian farm house.    Two empty tea cups stand to one side. Spread out on the table is a huge laminated map of Australia. He is pointing out the route we and eight others will take in two weeks time, and as his fingers pass over the names on the map he frequently pauses to tell me more about the places the names represent.

Howard is a very experienced outback traveller.   His first trip to the desert was in 1989 when he was in his early thirties.   He and another local man decided to take off to see the Red Centre of Australia.   He admits he was very green at the time and had hardly been outside of Victoria. He was totally unprepared for the vastness of the country he was to travel and the impact it would have on him. He’s traveled back many times since, crisscrossing the interior of Australia in his four wheel drive.

I’m left with the impression that Howard fell in love on that trip, in love with with the remote desert spaces in the centre of Australia.

His fingers trace our route from Deans Marsh to Hahndorf, our first stop. Then North to Peterborough and on to Marree where we will take the renowned Birdsville Track. Turning left at Birdsville, we will head for Poeppel Corner where three Australian state lines meet.

“It’s possible to stand with your left leg in the Northern Territory, your right leg in Queensland and you arms stretched out into South Australia.” Howard chuckles, “I once stretched out flat on top of the post there to do just that!”

“The spot was named after the bloke who first surveyed the area to pinpoint its exact location. It was way back in the late nineteenth century and he had camels drag a post and measuring chain all the way from Birdsville. When it was surveyed again, they found he was a few hundred metres out, and that’s because the steel linked chain had stretched along the way.”

Every place out here has a story.

Simpson map

Poeppel Corner and the Simpson

Howard pauses, and then almost reverently says “And here’s the Simpson.” He stretches out his hand and covers first the desert and then our home state of Victoria. “Look, it’s as big as Victoria, and there’s not a soul living in it.” Later I Google this to see if it’s really true. I find that the Simpson Desert official area is about two thirds that of Victoria, but if you add in the surrounding area that is informally included when people talk of the Simpson, Howard is right. The Simpson is about the size of Victoria!

For overseas readers, let me help you imagine what this means so that you can visualise the scale of this desert. It is officially 145,000 km sq (56,000 sq mi). That’s bigger than the whole of England, which is only 130,000 km sq (50,000 sq mi). Imagine then that no one lives in the Simpson (although some indigenous folk live around the periphery), while England has 63 million inhabitants.

Courtesy of NT Tourism

Simpson Desert – Courtesy of NT Tourism

I ask if we will see many other vehicles when we are crossing the Simpson? “Last time I crossed it I saw about 12 other vehicles over 4 days. That was 13 years ago, so it will be a lot busier now. We will probably see 3 or 4 times more. It’s busiest in the winter months of June to September, especially in Australian school holidays, but we are early in the season, so it will be reasonably quiet.” This sounds like a massive understatement for one of the most remote places on earth, but I know what he means.

We are crossing the Simpson East to West on the French Line, a track created by a French oil company in the sixties to open up the desert for prospecting. Fortunately no economical mineral deposits were found and the desert was left in peace, but with an access road used by many 4WD explorers today.

Howard points out the waypoints from the French Line on the way to Alice Springs, where we will join the Stuart Highway, passing through Mount Dare and Old Andado. Every place has a story, but this is already a long post!

Once we reach Alice Springs and the highway, the stories peter out and with a swoosh of the hand Howard indicates that the remaining 1390 km to Adelaide River will be a straightforward couple of days highway driving.

Up the highway from Alice

Up the highway from Alice

To an English ex pat the distances are mind boggling. Overall we will be driving around 4000 km in 13 days. That’s the equivalent to driving from London to the North Pole or New York to Calgary. It’s a hell of a long way, but this is Australia. Long distances are shrugged off with a larrikin smile and a wink. No worries, mate.


“Eat food, not a lot and mainly plants” Michael Pollan

Like it our not, people get very passionate about food.

What we eat is rarely based on the desire to achieve the mythical balanced diet or to obtain the exact recommended daily amount of carbohydrates or protein.   It is not scientific.  It more often reflects our nationality, our family history, our genes and even sometimes our politics.    It’s personal.   What you eat says a lot about you.

I’ve been thinking about food a lot lately.   Even more than usual!   My passion is real food.  I like to eat food that has not been messed about with.  Food that starts with basic raw materials that my great grandmother would recognise and has had nothing added that is identified by a number or a sounds like something out of a chemistry lab.  Poptarts are not for me.  I’ll go for sourdough toast with cultured butter and homemade jam every time.


Onions in the garden

This works well when you live on a farm, have a good sized vege patch and the time to cook from scratch.   It’s not going to work quite so well on a 4WD trip through the outback.   I’ve been trying to work out how to combine practical, quick and convenient with natural, homemade and nutritious.   I’m not a purist, I don’t have to make everything from scratch, but I would like to know what I am eating and feel good about it.   It must be possible to eat real food when camping, but it’s going to need some  planning and preparation.


Silverbeet in all its glory

The gold standard has been already been set.  I’m travelling with some experienced camp cooks.   A meal for ten?  No worries, we can knock up a tasty lamb shank stew with potatoes and pumpkin over the camp fire, followed by an amazing fruit damper.  Washing up?  Just the camp ovens and your plates.  Beryl and Olive, you are my role models!


Campfire cooking

So will real food be possible?  On the plus side I have at my disposal a fridge/freezer (camping size), a two burner gas stove, a frying pan, a cast iron camp oven, a Thermopot and my secret weapon, the vacuum sealer.  All in all, it’s not a bad camp kitchen.

On the other hand, we will have to travel lean and mean.   We need to keep weight in the 4WD to a minimum, to use less fuel and make it easier to drive up the sand dunes.  So I can’t empty the contents of my larder into the back of the ute and be done with it.  I need to choose carefully and take only as much as we need.


Road corrugations

Another challenge is the terrain.   When we are driving over corrugations everything will be shaken to within an inch of its life and if it’s not sealed will be covered in red dust.  Fragile fruits and  vegetables will not survive being bounced around like this.

While it’s great to have a fridge, I have to be realistic here too.    It is a compact unit and any food will need to share the storage space with essential items for the driver’s 5pm chill out session, otherwise known as beer o’clock.  Of course I can negotiate with the driver for a little more space if I can promise a chilli con carne at regular intervals and maybe a bacon sandwich for breakfast.

Just the essentials then. For fresh vegetables, I’m thinking pumpkin, onion, garlic, carrots and potato as staples and some lemons for flavour.  They are all in the garden or my provisions store now.  These vegetables are pretty hardy, but will still need to be packed in newspaper to protect them from damage as we drive.  The fridge gives us a few more options.  I can throw in some vacuum packed apple slices for quick desserts and some ready made meals, such as chilli, bolognese, curry and tomato pasta sauce.  For meat, it’s got to be steak, bacon, and a roast for the camp oven. Cheese is essential.  Perhaps a couple of cans of baked beans and chick peas.  Pasta and couscous of course.   Then flour, sugar, butter, dried fruit and nuts, spices, porridge oats and jam.   Maybe I can get the recipe for the fruit damper?   I wonder if I can vacuum pack home made bread…

I’m sure my ideas will need to be scaled down when I look at the space available, but yes, I think real food is possible. No pop tarts needed.

And we already have emergency rations taken care of, a yummy nutty fruit cake for morning/afternoon tea.    Happy days!

Emergency rations

Emergency rations