Category Archives: Route

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.

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.