Monthly Archives: May 2014

Bush Poetry #1

Poetry around the camp fire

I’m in the desert
The Simpson Desert
We’ve travelled many miles
I’m sitting in the sand
Red sand
Big red is in the distance
It seems it must be conquered
And conquer it we did
Clumps of grass and acacia dot the dunes
Flies annoy my eyes
The sky is blue and goes on forever
Horizon too seems far away
I gather up my sticks and play.

by Beryl Bush

Birdsville to the Simpson

The sound of dingoes wailing like banshees breaks the silence of the desert night.  We are in Birdsville.  Today we venture into the desert.

Sand flags are attached to our vehicles and straps are checked and tightened to make sure everything is ready for the desert crossing. We take a trip to the tourist information office to buy our desert parks pass and we are ready to go. A refuel at the servo and a detour past the bakery for a coffee and cake is all we need to set us up for the journey.

Birdsville has lived up to its reputation. A friendly place with every facility a traveller could need. It may be a remote destination, but it has the feel of a real town with a strong community.

Big red road sign

Big red road sign

A few kilometres outside the town, we stop for the obligatory photo beside the road sign to Big Red, the famous sand dune. Big Red is the highest dune in the Simpson desert, standing at around 50 metres. It lays down a challenge to our drivers that they are keen to accept.

As we prepare to leave the photo spot Brett and Christine find their ute will not start. A dead battery is the cause. We thank the desert gods that the battery has failed so close to town, where it is easy to buy a replacement. Out in the desert this would have been a more challenging problem to solve. Back to Birdsville we go. It does not take long. Battery purchased, fitted and tested and we are off.

The Simpson Desert is the world’s largest parallel dune desert. It is made up of over a thousand parallel dunes running along its length from NE to SW. Our route will run from E to W, along the QAA line to Poeppel Corner and then along the French Line to Mount Dare Hotel. We will be moving across and over the dunes and will have some challenging 4WD action ahead of us.

Sand dune

Sand dune

The first sand dune is relatively easy to climb, but we novices feel a surge of excitement when we successfully reach the other side. Next comes Big Red. It is slightly off the main track, and is not on our route, but it is definitely on our itinerary. We take the side track towards it, see the dune ahead and the adrenalin starts to run in anticipation. Howard is first to attempt the giant dune. He easily reaches the summit on the second attempt. We see two figures at the top, watching the rest of the team’s attempts. Max hurtles towards the dune and loses power about three quarters of the way up. He reverses back down and powers back for his second attempt. He does it. He and Heather stand at the top looking down.

Malcolm and Olive try twice unsuccessfully to climb the dune, but they have conquered it before and decide to sit this one out. Brett steps up to the plate and powers up the sandy incline. The ute loses power in the middle of the dune. He tries again and gets almost to the top, but can’t find the traction to get through the soft sand at the summit. He decides to call it quits. It’s been a tough day already and he will pass on this challenge.

Tackling Big Red

Tackling Big Red

Richard lines up to take his turn. He charges at the dune, wrestling with the wheel to stay on track, only to lose traction midway. Four more attempts in different gears see him climb to the very top of the dune, only to lack enough power for the final push over the crest. Another group of vehicles approaches the dune and he knows he only has time for one more try. He is determined to conquer the colossus and his face is set as he lines up for his attempt. The radio crackles with advice on the gear to select, “Low 2”, “High 3”. He selects low 3 and manoeuvres the ISUZU to the starting point. At the last minute he flicks off the air conditioning, hoping that might help him find the extra few horse power he is looking for.

Off he goes, power on, up to middle of the dune, the vehicle gains traction as he turns to the left and the ISUZU pushes forward, finally easing over the crest and on to the summit. A shout of exhilaration and he’s out of the vehicle, punching the air. Mission accomplished.

With the excitement of Big Red behind us, we continue our drive into the desert. Every dune presents a different driving challenge. The convoy soon gets into the groove and we make slow but sure progress through the afternoon.

Map

Map

Beryl calls out over the radio, “We’re in paradise!” We climb the dune to find a treed plain below us that reminds me of an olive grove. The flat plain between two distant dunes is dotted with silvery grey green trees. We have found our first desert camp site. Wood is collected, a fire is set and we make camp.

After a tasty dinner, we sit around the camp fire, looking up at the starry starry night. Earlier in the day, Beryl had laid down a challenge to the group to each write a poem to read around the campfire. What a talented group! The poems each reflected the personality of the author – some comical, others lyrical – all giving a new perspective on the trip so far.

I will share a selection of these poems in future posts under the category “Bush Poetry” so that you, dear reader, can hear other voices tell the story of our travels into the red centre of Australia to see the Big Red Bit.

Birdsville track

The convoy gathered for a group photo at the signpost marking the start of the Birdsville track before filling up with fuel for the iconic trip from Marree to Birdsville. The girls lined up, smiling for their photo. The boys fell about when it was their turn, crying with laughter at Malcolm’s poses. “Look at these, the sexiest legs this side of Birdsville”.

Girls at Birdville road sign

Girls at Birdville road sign

We met up with Max and Heather at Marree last night, so now we are ten travellers in five cars. Marree is a small town that used to sit at the end of the old Ghan railway. Before the rail, it was a stopping off point for aboriginal travellers and Muslim cameleers as they moved between the desert watering holes. The hotel is now a welcoming stop for tourists and modern day explorers. Simple food, cold beer and a smile.

The track is unsealed, but well maintained. We can see the signs of recent rains, with deep ruts cut into the track by vehicles bogged in the mud. But today it is perfect weather, 30 degrees, sunny, with a few clouds in the sky.

Gibber stone

Gibber stone

The stone clad plains on either side of the track are identical, the red gibber stones glinting in the sunlight as we drive along. A solitary bird of prey hovers overhead, the only sign of animal life apart from a few Hereford cattle who stare lazily at our vehicles as we drive past in clouds of whirling dust. “Good looking stock”, a voice crackles over the radio, admiring the view. What else would you expect from a convoy of cattle farmers?

It’s thirsty work driving the straight sandy track through the rocky plains. We are relieved to hear the call to morning tea at Coopers Creek over the radio “Cuppas at Coopers!” But a plague of flies keeps the tea break short and we are soon on the road again.

Harsh country

Harsh country

The Strezlecki Desert and Sturt Stony Desert are not welcoming places. They are flat with few geographical features to relieve the kilometre upon kilometre of sandy, rocky land. The driving has its challenges too. A few moments distraction, a steep cattle grid on a crest and the utes are airborne, Birdsville Airways look out!

On and on we go, dust swirling, radio crackling, wheels turning. We recall that Tom Kruse, the famed Birdsville mailman, travelled between Marree and Birdsville through rain, drought, dust storm and high winds for 20 years. We are driving a direct route, but he had to zig zag from cattle station to cattle station, in a truck loaded up with supplies. It took him about a week to complete this journey that for us will be over within a day. We have it easy with our air conditioning and modern vehicles.

On and on we go. No matter how arid the land, how far from community support, there are always pioneers who make their stake and dig in to drag a living from the land. Such a place can be seen at the old Mulka Store. A few stone walls remain, together with a lonely grave marked with a marble stone. A young girl, only 14 years and 5 months old lies here. The exactness of her age a quiet reminder of the pain of loss felt by her parents. Just one sad story of many.

At lunchtime we stop at Mungerannie to take a look at the birds in a small area of wetlands around the uncapped bore. We are not disappointed. Noisy white corellas dot the trees and a pair of elegant grey brolgas tip toe their way gingerly through the grass and reeds; the scarlet flashes on their heads so bright against the sandy coloured vegetation. The cameras click. Well worth the stop.

On and on we go. The final run to Birdsville is dusty, each vehicle throwing up a fog behind it that the tail enders struggle to see their way through. We are glad to reach our destination, Birdsville feels like an oasis.

Later, in the famous Birdsville hotel, we enjoy the welcome and the great Aussie tucker, Shearers Delight lamb Cutlets, Shepherds Pie with gravy and Mallee Bull burger. A cool glass of beer or wine goes down well as stories are swapped around the table with Mick, a fascinating retired station hand in his nineties. Mick held so much Aussie history in his own life story. From Kidman to Tom Kruse, he knew them all. Asked what he thinks of the famous mailman, he smiles and says “He wasn’t a bad bloke”. We all know there are few higher accolades for an Australian.

After dinner, we retire to the campsite to gaze for a while at the Milky Way lighting up the night sky. Tomorrow the desert, we sleep and dream of climbing red sand dunes that seem to go up and up forever.

 

 

 

 

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.

image

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.

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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.

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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.