Category Archives: Getting ready to go

A new journey

Guest author:  Richard McSephney

We’re peering into an empty water trough. Such is the life of a farmer. Animals, water, feed, fences, all to be thought about.  All need attention. Dates to be adhered to, deadlines not to be missed, but how much better could it be than here in the Otways? A warm 15C, clear blue sky and only a week to the shortest day of the year.

Well I’ll tell you:

“How about next Monday 08.30?” says Howard.

That’s how much better it just got. We’re off to the Gibb River Road in Western Australia.  A journey at the very top of my wish list and another adventure for the Big Red Bit travellers.

Possible showstoppers have now been resolved and our long talked about journey is back on the agenda…in a hurry.   You want weeks to set up, prepare and go? Not this time.

The Landcruisers are set and ready to go.  Just step in and turn the key! But this is not just popping up the road; this is a 4,000 km road trip to get to the start of our Gibb River Road adventure.  Let’s not even mention that we need to cross the Tanami Desert.   Apparently that’s a walk in the park, a 185,000 square kilometre park though, and 1000 km across but anyone can do it – so say those wiser than me.   All you need is common sense, a reliable car and all the usual precautions. The precautions you’d take for any trip to one of the remotest parts of Australia.

So Big Red Bit awakens again.

Only two cars depart damp Pennyroyal this time, another two are already wending their way across the Nullabor Desert to different destinations, but who knows, a wink, a wry smile. “We may see you somewhere in the West”.

I’m sure that means we probably will!

The long road north

Get out your map of Australia now.

We are going to Cape York.  How are we going to get there? Read on for the route of our long road to the north.

We like to go off the beaten track.   So rather then heading up the freeway to Melbourne from our home in the Otways, we’ll head inland through the goldfields and wool mills around Ballarat and Bendigo.   Two of our party will meet us on the way.  Five vehicles will then head north across the great Murray River to overnight in the country town of Deniliquin.

Taking a turning to the west, our camping convoy will head for the Darling River, one of the longest rivers in Australia.  Our journey along the Darling will take us through small towns like Wilcannia that were once bustling river ports.  Back in the river boat era, the Darling was part of an extensive water transport network that took wool and other goods to the coast.

Leaving the river for the outback, the convoy will visit the mining town of Lightning Ridge, famous for its black opals.   Then on to Roma, home of the largest cattle sales in Australia, if not the Southern Hemisphere.  We’ll spend some time there admiring the animals at one of their  famous outback cattle auctions.

After the excitement of the sales yards, we head into the wilderness of Carnarvon National Park in Queensland’s central highlands to bush walk, admire the birds and wildlife and be inspired by the indigenous art.

If time allows, Longreach will be our next stop.  Famed as the birthplace of Australia’s Qantas airline, there is much there to interest the aviation enthusiast.  Those more interested in Australia’s rural history, can wile away a few hours in the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame.

Northwards to Airlie Beach, where the cars and campers will be given a few days rest in secure parking.   Skipper and crew will head to Hamilton Island for a week to explore the beautiful Whitsunday Islands by yacht.   On the edge of the Great Barrier Reef, this is a perfect sailing spot, sure to please even the most nervous novice sailor (I hope).

Refreshed from our sailing adventures, it is onwards and upwards to Charters Towers, then along the Gregory Development Road to Cairns and on to Cooktown in the Cape York Peninsula.    It’s starting to get hot and steamy up here.   Cooktown sits on the edge of the tropical rainforest and is a botanist’s paradise, as well as a handy stopping off point for the Great Barrier Reef or the Lakefield National Park.

Now in one of Australia’s true wilderness areas, we’ll take the Peninsula Development Road towards the town of Weipa.  Looking out for crocs we’ll head up the Old Telegraph Track to the northernmost tip of mainland Australia, Cape York.   This could test our vehicles and our drivers. Its rocky creek crossings are spoken of in hushed tones by experienced off-road drivers. Gunshot Creek, the scariest of them all, requires a steep descent into a running rocky river. As the old timers used to say, “there be dragons…”

Having made it this far, we hope to have time to take the ferry across to Thursday Island.  The island is the centre of the Torres Strait Islands region, culturally Melanesian but administratively part of Far North Queensland.

And there, as far north as we can go, we will have reached our destination and can make our way slowly back home.

This is the plan.  Dear reader, do join us on our travel adventures to the most northerly tip of Australia.  Bigredbit will document what happens as the plan meets reality.



Off the beaten track

Don’t laugh.   This sketchy map is pretty much how I viewed Australia until I came to live here.  It’s defining features?   The big red sandy bit in the middle and the country’s incredibly deadly wildlife – snakes, sharks, spiders, poisonous jellyfish and man-eating crocodiles.  Its culture?  Cricket and beaches.  Beer and barbies.  Crocodile Dundee and Kylie Minogue.

Of course, it is more, much more than that.  Its vast, open spaces are mind expanding.  Its wildlife is unique and diverse.   Its indigenous culture ancient and mysterious.  Its written history, short, brutal and at times full of despair.  Turn off the beaten track and you begin to dig beneath the surface of modern Australia.

That’s why when we leave the green, pleasant land of Victoria and head north, we will steer inland, away from the major roads.  We will visit monuments to early settlers, old woolsheds, opal fields and outback cattle yards.  We will see the sobering effects of drought and enjoy the mateship of a country pub.  We will cross rivers, some running, some dry, as we make our way slowly northward to the tropical wilderness where the deadly predators still roam.

Off the highway, we may begin to understand a culture that celebrates heroic failures more vigorously than stoic survivors.   The tragic loss of the Gallipolli landings?  Honoured as a defining national event.  Bourke and Wills, the explorers who never came back?   Recognised by a bronze statue in the centre of Melbourne and better known than any who lived to tell the tale.

Modern Australia is a country built by victory over extreme adversity.  Off the beaten track, the human struggle to live on this harsh, parched continent is more apparent.   Think back through history. The urban poor of the British Isles, transported as convicts to a far off land, lacked the most basic agricultural skills to scrape a living from the land.  They almost starved.  New settlers, seeking gold or escaping political discrimination were little better equipped.  Tragedy was commonplace in the early days of modern Australia.  But still they came, looking for a better life.  Hoping to win against the odds.

Perhaps that’s why we celebrate the battler, the man or woman who will take risks and have a go, no matter the consequences.

Travelling inland we will hear their stories and see the land as they would have seen it.     Away from the hubbub of 21st century coastal city life, if we listen carefully we may catch the melody of their songs on the wind.

There is much more to Australia than its travel brochure reputation suggests.  Dig beneath the surface, leave the highway for a dirt track and discover another country.

Here we go again…

Autumn draws to a close.  Winter is coming to the Otways and we are heading north.

Looking outside my window I see gold and red leaves on the Japanese Maple.   The garlic is planted, the apples harvested, the last of the tomato plants despatched.  It’s a fine clear autumn day in the Otways.   I feel the chill in the air as the sun drops down below the horizon.  Another log on the fire warms the room.   As the sun retreats and the days grow shorter and cooler, like migratory birds we feel the need to be on the move.

Travel plans are well advanced.  It’s time to wake up this sleepy blog.   Big Red Bit is off to Cape York in Far North Queensland.




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


Your chariot awaits…

When you are planning a long trip into the outback, your vehicle takes on a new and heightened significance. It needs to be tough enough to cope with all kinds of terrain, from smooth freeway driving to scaling 35 metre high sand dunes.  It needs to be comfortable enough for you and your beloved to happily spend many an hour on the road, and most important of all, it becomes your home. It carries your food, water, cooking equipment, bed, clothes, first aid and rescue equipment.


We bought our ISUZU ute last year as our runaround vehicle – chosen for its comfort, fuel economy and large tray (for dog transport and shifting garden supplies).  A secondary consideration was its 4WD capability.  As long as it could safely be taken on to the farm and out on to the unsealed tracks around the Otways, it would do fine.  But for the desert?

It is interesting how many different views are held on what is needed for a trip like this. We’ve heard all sorts of different opinions expressed with equal vigour and certainty.

There are those who adopt the famous Aussie “She’ll be right” approach and believe a basic 4×4 road car will be fine in the desert.  Then there are the brand worshippers.  We recently watched a 4WD TV show where the local guide, a Landcruiser man through and through, stated there is no point in undertaking any serious outback trip unless a Toyota is involved. Fortunately we will have three of these tried and trusted vehicles in convoy with us.  We hope our Isuzu D-Max will hold her head high in such esteemed company.


Taking all these views on board, in the end we have done what we think is right. Only time will tell if we have made the right calls.  With the most remote and challenging part of the trip in mind, we have invested in some new features for our ute.

1) A long distance fuel tank – there are sections of our route where there are no opportunities to buy fuel

2) A dual battery system – this means we can run auxiliary power from a separate battery for our “home” needs, such as the fridge, keeping the main battery charged up for its primary purpose

3) Enhanced suspension – to give us greater clearance and robustness to cope with sandy terrain


4) A bull bar – there be camels and roos out there…

5) A UHF radio and antenna – to keep in touch with our convoy and find out what those road trains are planning.


6) Extra spare wheels and tough looking tyres, called Mickey Thompsons – to provide more grip and resilience for the outback conditions and spares in case of trouble


As a result, the ute has grown, both in height and length and now looks a little imposing in the local shopping centre car park!  We think it is ready..


Home is where the heart is…

I’m lucky. I truly love the small piece of this planet we call home. I’m one of those people who wakes up in the morning, opens my bleary eyes and sighs in pleasure when I realise I am at home, here in the place I love best – our farm in the Otways. When I am not here, I take this place with me, tucked away in the back of my mind as a touchstone when I need to be reassured. I can close my eyes any time and hear the song of our birds, the warbling magpie, chuckling Kookaburra and excitable peeping fairy wren. I can conjure up the scent of the forest, the minty gum leaves, the musky layers of the forest floor and the misty Otways air.

And yet… I hear the call of distant climes. I am drawn to the travel pages in the Weekend Age. I love reading about people who have ventured out into the four corners of our beautiful planet. Ten Years in Tibet cuddles up to Under The Tuscan Sun on my bookshelf. My DVD collection is heavily weighted towards travel, from Michael Palin to David Adams, Rick Stein to Jamie Oliver, Ewan MacGregor to .. well, Charley Boorman. I like to tag along with them all when they are out there exploring the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the great unknown.

In three weeks time we will drive out of our farm gate, in our newly equipped vehicle, carrying our home on our backs, or at least our tent on the rooftop of the 4WD, and will be on our way across this massive continent. I will feel such mixed emotions as we drive down our unsealed road and meet the highway. How hard it is to say goodbye to this place, it tears at my heart. But how exciting, what a thrill to be on our way to the red centre. How I’ve longed to see for myself the great expanses in the interior of this sunburnt country. I imagine a landscape like I’ve never seen before, can it really be that colour? Can this country really be so huge that we can drive for 2 weeks without reaching the North coast? I have to see for myself.

Am I the only traveller who feels torn? Home is where the heart is, but out there lies excitement and adventure, the unknown, and we are drawn inevitably to explore.