Category Archives: Richard

Crossings and Crocs – a driver’s perspective

All respectable 4WD magazines highly recommend that any river crossing is walked to establish route, unseen obstructions and hazards.  We’re above a latitude running through Cairns and that is significant.  Guess who lives up here?  Yes, crocs.

Never mind telling me it’s a freshie.  It can’t eat you whole, or they won’t bite you, they’re crocs.

Even if you’re not freaked out by that, their bigger cousins are salties, estuarine crocs.  Saltwater crocs grow as big as a Holden Commodore and are at least as fast.  They eat you whole.

On the trip up to the area we stop for cuppas.  I get out, wander over to the picnic spot and there, right in front of me, is a ten foot sign saying, Warning – Achtung Estuarine Crocs inhabit this area.  They’ll eat you or tear off your arm.  It didn’t quite say that, but my croc phobia has me sprinting back to the ute.  

At every stop someone tells me a taller story about a croc near miss.  About how big, mean and sneaky they are. You see my dilemma?  We’re on a journey which is punctuated regularly with a croc infested creek crossing. 

 I’m encouraged to walk to the water’s edge at one crossing by Max and Malcolm.  They offer words of encouragement then, just as I’m settling down, Malcolm strips to his jocks and leaps in.  I almost faint.  Max howls with laughter and Malcolm continues to splash around, calling, “there’s no crocs here, come on in.”

Up here, if there’s water there’s probably a croc, I’ve been told.  Every time my fear subsides, a prank is formulated to restart my heart at an increased rate.  It’s a newfound pastime for Howard, who thinks up new impressions of reptiles, leaps out or sneaks around waiting to startle the unexpected… usually me.

We arrive at another crossing.  It looks like the site of an air crash.  Devastation on the banks, car body parts decorate the trees.  They could even be the Christmas trees displayed at a wreckers’ holiday party, baubles and tinsel replaced by Nissan bumpers, Landcruiser steps, the radiator and inter cooler from a large 4WD.  This is a place where the gods of the crossings have to be appeased.  The onward journey toll requires the traveller to deposit a body part.  We pass toll free!

I ask Max about a tale Malcolm related of a creek crossing years earlier.  Heather allegedly walked waist deep across a muddy brown fast flowing creek.  Max laughs. “What you have to remember is that if you smack a croc on the nose with a thong, job’s done, it’ll move away”.

I look at him incredulously.  “Oh, I agree, it’s not straightforward and it could get awkward if you catch the thong between your toes at a key moment.”  He strolls off under a cloud of cigarette smoke, chuckling loudly.  I can’t quite convince myself he’s joking.

Even though I’m joking about crocs, if you travel this way you’re going to invade the croc’s home.  He’s protected and must be respected.  Common sense has to prevail.  Read the Crocwise signs and give all due respect to these ancient and wonderful beasts and then you’ll enjoy a fantastic trip through the areas where they live.

Oh, by the way, our unpaid crossing… We notice hours later Howard’s number plate has gone.  The crossing gods have collected their toll.
Written by Richard

Inland to Bathurst Heads

It’s 10th June, Richard’s birthday.   We drive inland from Endeavour Falls along Battlecamp Road.   The red dirt is back.

The landscape has changed.  It’s the opposite to the rainforest.  The red roads gradually turn yellow as we drive through the low growing scrub and splash through the Normanby River creek crossing.

Old Laura homestead still stands.  A wide verandah tin and timber house, an old well, workers’ housing and the old forge remain.    The house is protected with chicken wire, to keep out tourists and perhaps the wildlife.  It must have been a hard existence living here in the heat, eking a living from the land.

Steel grey ant hills dot the country as we drive on from Laura.  This is national park land.  New regulations require all campsites to be prebooked online or by telephone.   This is bureaucracy at its best.   It’s totally impractical in an area with no mobile reception, public telephones or wifi.    It’s not in the spirit of bush camping to plan ahead and book the week in advance from Cooktown.   Plans have to change when a closed road, a vehicle repair or a fascinating side track delay the camper.   We shrug.  We will look outside the national park for our spot tonight.

The Kalpower River crossing is wide and flat, water tumbling down on the rocks below.  We drive on corrugated public roads through aboriginal freehold land.  The ant hills grow as tall as the scrubby trees.  Sculpted and impassive they look like druids’ standing stones dotted across an ancient woodland.  Wild horses gallop away as we pass.

There are two options when we cross the Marrett River, through the water or on a rough timber bridge, a few tree trunks slung across bank to bank.  Taking the bridge, we wonder if it will be strong enough to take the weight of the car.   Just to be sure we stall the engine as we cross and spend a few moments gazing down at the river, proving the bridge is strong.

Olive tells us tales of the old Kalpower homestead that is nearby.   It must be deep in the bush now, because our search is in vain.  There are no signs of habitation except an old Bedford truck that gave up the ghost many years ago.

Further down the road,a muddy four wheel drive approaches us, containing two young men.   Don’t bother trying to get to Bathurst Heads, they say.  They have been bogged down in a mud hole for three days and have had to winch themselves out.  The road is impassable.

We make do with a campsite just off the road, towards the river.  It’s a rough, scrubby spot.  Max heads off to the river to fish.   We make camp and get a fire started.

Richard, Dom and Beryl head down to the river to see how the fishing is going.  Richard, axe in hand, ready to fight off any crocodiles who may make their home here.  This morning we heard a crocodile story from the owner of the campsite.  A man was fishing in the river near the campsite and was grabbed by a four metre crocodile.  They had never seen one in that area before.  Male crocodiles have to find their own territory and move out into new areas as the population increases.

Rich and Max and axe

Luckily, the axe is not needed.   Max catches a lovely Mangrove Jack and a Bream, and Dom another Mangrove Jack.  The fish are cooked on the campfire for dinner.   The delicate taste of the fresh fish is better than any haute cuisine.

The mosquitoes are vicious.  Long trousers and sleeved shirts are essential.   They force an early retirement to our beds, after a fine ginger beer scone dessert, cooked for Richard’s birthday by chef Howard.

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.

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.