Beyond The Black Stump. Part 2.

Longreach, QLD. Saturday 27th May 2017

Having had my fill of hooves and harnesses at the Stockman’s Hall of Fame, I went to the Longreach Visitor Centre, to find out what else there was to see. “The Powerhouse museum, of course.” Oh yes, silly me, how could I have missed that? It being a Friday, with the museum closed over the weekend, I got myself down there.
Personally I love industrial architecture and technology. Human ingenuity writ large is the way I think of it. Whenever you turn on a light or cook a TV dinner in the microwave, somebody has made it possible by developing a huge engine to generate that power. In Britain we’ve had a national grid for so long it’s impossible to imagine how it must have been when a city like London had competing electricity suppliers, presumably with their own supply grids. In Australia their grids haven’t existed for all that long. Most towns started out by generating their own power and gradually, as more efficient machinery was brought in, it spread to nearby settlements and stations. In Longreach their first system was powered by charcoal and coal, but not by way of a steam engine. And that was what intrigued me.

 

 

Gas powered engine.  The large yellow panels are the cylinder heads.

The Powerhouse Museum has a collection of gas powered engines, the gas having been produced by heating up coal then drawing that off as a fuel. You may have seen old newsreels, where cars in Britain during WW2 had huge bags on their roof containing coal gas to replace the almost non-existent petrol. The technology is the same, just much bigger. In 1925 the first gas engine was installed but charcoal was burned, then replaced by coal in the 1950s. The engines on display were from the 1950s and 60s, as is the gas producer unit. The combustion process is the same as any other spark ignition engine, just vastly bigger than any type I’d seen before. An engine the size of a garden shed looks pretty impressive. I couldn’t help but wonder what’s involved in re-gapping the spark plugs, or setting the points on the large magneto. Coal was brought in by train and the powerhouse is sited next to the town bore so it had a ready supply of cooling water. Apparently they were extremely noisy, and caused the ground to vibrate too. Nearby residents got used to all this and more often had trouble sleeping when the engines were stopped for maintenance than when they were running. Eventually, as diesel power became more effective, the engines were replaced by second hand units from other power stations. By 1971 all the gas engines were out of use and in 1985 Longreach was connected to the state grid. Peaceful nights for the residents at last.

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Power generator. 650KW.

Next morning I raised my focus from heavy iron to balsa wood and canvas when I visited the QUANTAS museum. Although it is a private enterprise, Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Service is seen as Australia’s national carrier and is certainly its biggest. But it suffered a gestation period that was difficult, to say the least, and it nearly went out of business within a few years of starting. If it had started up in one of the busier southern states, where there were railways and decent roads, it probably would have, but its founders instinctively knew that Queensland needed air transport. Huge distances, rough tracks which were impassable in the wet season, no rail service and a population with an innate pioneering spirit meant that it had a chance. But even then it was a near thing. It was started by two WW1 fliers, Paul McGuiness and Hudson Fysh, both of them decorated for bravery, who had come together as comrades, became friends, and had an idea.

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How it all began.

Flying was still not taken seriously as a means of transport post war, despite its proven military benefits. Planes were flimsy, not always reliable and could usually only carry one passenger and almost no cargo. And that passenger had no more weather protection than the pilot did. Many WW1 fliers tried to make a living Barnstorming. Initially the name described how a plane would literally fly in one end of a barn and out of the other, although it came to refer to any kind of aerobatics. In order to demonstrate planes’ robustness, if nothing else, a London to Sydney air race was decided upon, to be run in the summer of 1919. McGuiness and Fysh had planned to take part but their proposed sponsor died so they couldn’t compete. Instead they were engaged to find suitable locations for landing fields, to be used as stopover points. They scoured Central and Northern Queensland, as well as part of the Northern Territory, in a car. On this journey they realised just how bad the road network was in those areas and conceived the idea of opening an airline. Three local pastoralists decided to invest in them and on the 16th November 1920, in Winton, QLD, QANTAS was born. Within a few months they’d moved operations to Longreach, to be close to the railhead and had sold more shares. In their early days they simply picked up passenger work wherever they could, as well as taking people up for joyrides. Their operations were rather hit and miss, although they did fly some regular routes too. But they were struggling to survive until the state government put out a tender for a regular aerial mail service for north and central Queensland. QANTAS won the contract and their future was assured.

 

 

Constructing a propeller.                                                   Why it’s done that way.

As passenger demand increased they began to build their own planes, under licence from De Havilland, one of the few airlines ever to do this. Eventually they won an international air mail contract, in partnership with Imperial Airways from Britain, to operate the Darwin to Singapore section of the London to Australia air mail service. They had now become international. Meanwhile, with their bigger aircraft, they were able to operate regular passenger services around Queensland and the Northern Territory. They eventually moved operations to Brisbane and grew into the international airline they are today, with their instantly recognisable kangaroo motif.
The museum is housed in their original hangar, where chief engineer Arthur Baird worked oily miracles to keep their small fleet in the air, and later supervised the construction of the de Havilland DH50 aircraft. It is filled with various planes, engines and information displays. Some good films about their early years too. There is a real sense of their pioneering spirit about the place. After all, it’s an amazing story and I can’t imagine there’s many international airlines that still have their original home, from where they can tell their story.

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A replica of their first plane. de Havilland BE2e.

I mentioned earlier that Longreach houses a police training centre so I wasn’t overly surprised to find a checkpoint on the road out of town. They’d sensibly chosen a Saturday morning for this exercise and they were pulling in every vehicle. A tall guy in a Stetson hat asked to see my driving licence, chatted to me about where I was from and going to, and entered my details on his system “In case you go missing”. I didn’t bother to tell him that the reason why my name was already ‘on the system’ was because I already had! Then an obvious rookie breathalysed me before I was waved on my way. That was my first ever brush with the law during all the time I’ve been in Australia. Quite surprising after eighteen months of travel.

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The very restful Combo Waterhole, shaded by Coolibah trees.

The town of Winton has a claim to fame from the pioneering days, being the nearest location to the Combo Waterhole. And why is that significant? Because that’s where the Jolly Swag Man jumped into a billabong and became the central character in a very famous Aussie song. Renowned poet and musician Banjo Paterson visited the area in the late 19th century, heard the tale and wrote Waltzing Matilda, Australia’s unofficial national anthem. The events described in the song are pretty much true, perhaps unusually, and there’s a museum dedicated to it in the town. Except that it burned down last year so I had to be satisfied with riding out to the location and taking a walk down to the waterhole. It is a quiet and peaceful place, with plenty of Coolibah trees along the banks of the billabong to provide shade. It is a strange feeling to visit the inside of a song, so to speak. Banjo Paterson was a very accomplished writer and there’s more information about him here: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/paterson-andrew-barton-banjo-7972 The campsite I stayed on that evening had an entertainer, a travelling poet named Greg North. He was very good indeed and he included some of Banjo Paterson’s work in his repertoire. Look up Clancy of the Overflow if you want to get a feel for the pioneering days and some good Aussie humour.

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The Swag Man’s story.

Old songs are one thing, old bones are quite another, and Winton’s ‘Australian Age of Dinosaurs’ is the place to see them. There’s a nice story behind this place. Station owner David Elliot was out mustering one day in 2006 when he spotted an unusual rock. He realised what it was and contacted Brisbane museum. They came and excavated,  finding a number of bones, but not all that many. David had a feeling there were more to be found. This area is covered in black soil, a very sticky substance when wet. It is also ‘self mulching’, which means it draws dead plant life downwards, then, helped by the action of rain, it pushes the decomposed mixture back up again. David knew there would be more bones mixed in with this so he arranged another dig and was proved right when many more were found at a deeper level. So in 2009 he opened his own museum and paleontology centre where the entry fee supports further digs and the work of volunteers. He approached a neighbouring station to see if they would sell him some land on which to locate the centre. They wouldn’t. They gave it to him instead, being as keen as he was to explore this ancient aspect of the area’s heritage.

 

 

A painting of a dig.                         How the bones are protected from damage.

So the centre was built on the top of one of the jump-ups and houses a laboratory and storage facility. We took a tour round it and our guide explained how the bones are removed and then preserved until they can be cleaned ready for assessment and display. It’s all about newspaper, Hessian and plaster of Paris, which prevents damage during removal and storage. David likes to keep this activity local and no longer involves the Brisbane Museum. It’s definitely a more romantic and picturesque location than any city centre museum could ever be. We were able to watch some volunteers as they worked on the bones, carefully removing the plaster and rock with tiny grinders, to slowly reveal the ancient skeleton. It must be very gratifying work and we were able to ask questions of them quite freely. We watched a film and then a guide explained  how it was all done and showed us two significant skeletons, neatly laid out in front of us. The big one is of a Sauropod, a giant plant eater nicknamed Matilda. The smaller one is of an Austrolovena, a carnivore known as Banjo. Their bones were found quite close to each other and the theory is that Matilda’s weight caused her to become stuck in mud at the edge of a waterhole. Banjo came along, thought he was getting a bite of lunch but Matilda killed him, possibly with her tail. It may be true, but there’s no way of knowing. Bones from another type of Sauropod have also been found and they know many more will keep turning up. David has a knack for finding them.

 

 

      The top of the casing is removed.                                      Revealing the bone.

They’ve created a walk through area called Dinosaur Canyon, which is a place were tales are told in bronze models, relating to other finds in the area, but where they have also planted Cycads, the palm tree like ferns that would have been the dominant plant back when dinosaurs roamed the region. It overlooks the plains below the jump-up and provides a stunning backdrop to the story. David is proud that he’s been able to keep this local and I think he’s created a terrific facility in an amazing location.

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Bones on display. The result of much hard work by volunteers.

As I rode from Winton, through Cloncurry and out to Mount Isa, I could see how the terrain was changing. Flat, treeless grassland was giving way to stubby trees with huge termite mounds among them. There were low hills too. The land was definitely changing as I travelled north. By the time I got close to Mount Isa I was riding through jagged hills, on a road that actually had bends in it. Things were looking up. Then down. Then up again. Sorry about that, but after weeks of flat land and arrow straight roads, I was getting quite excited.

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Actual hills. Amazing!

Mount Isa is a mining town. And by that I mean that it was built simply to support the mine, without which it would have had no reason to exist. Copper, mostly, but also lead with silver in it, and some gold. They provide a tour into the Hard Times Mine so I went on it. No photos as weren’t allowed for some reason.
In reality we didn’t go into the mine itself, just a mock up of it. They stopped doing tours around the mine proper for safety reason, so they’ve used some high level tunnels to create a replica. The local town council didn’t want to lose the tourist revenue so they helped the company to finance it. Dave, our guide, talked us through the mine’s history, how the company began and how they search for ore. Geology is key, as it always has been. But modern methods help things along, such as using aircraft to measure the magnetic reaction of the ground, to provide a 2D map, followed by core samples to check how deep the ore is.
The five of us got kitted out in safety gear and were taken down in a cage to the tunnels, a mere 35 metres below ground. The real workings are currently about 1900 metres below that. He showed us the machinery used to move the ore; allowed us to use one of the rock drills, which create the holes for the explosive charges and showed us how the blasting is done. He started up one of the earth muckers, a huge machine which shifts the blasted ore over to the conveyor belts, and told us the story of how his son-in-law was nearly killed in a near miss accident. He was in a tunnel in a Toyota Ute when a mucker drove backwards, thinking he’d moved from the tunnel. The machine is so big that the driver didn’t realise he was crushing the Ute. What saved him was one of the three signals that miners can give with their helmet lamps. Moving the head in a circle means to come over to the signaller. Nodding the head up and down means YES or GO. Shaking the head from side to side means NO or STOP. That was the one that saved him. The driver had seen a different Ute leave the area and wasn’t able to see out of his reversing camera. It’s reckoned he had probably knocked it and hadn’t bothered to straighten it out again. Another miner saw what was happening and gave the STOP signal with his lamp. In among all that modern technology, an old fashioned manual signal saved the day.
After that we were glad of some crib, the miners’ name for a meal break. The vegetable pasties and corn beef sandwiches went down very well and saved me from cooking that night. I had no desire for that kind of work though. It’s noisy, hot and hard. The miners are well paid but they surely earn it.

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There is lots of this type of facility to be seen from the lookout. ‘Functional’ is the right word for this town.

In the morning I rode up to the lookout for a view over the town. There’s nothing at all pretty about it, purely functional, with industrial workings all around. The population of 23,500 are mostly engaged in activities which support the 3,500 miners and their families. Mount Isa was named after a nearby goldmine called Mount Ida and the ore was discovered by pastoralists, as is quite common in this area. But this very functional town is set among some beautiful countryside and most of the miners are permanent residents, rather than FIFO – Fly In, Fly Out.
Time to go. Over the last few days I’d managed to visit all of the places that had been circled on my map.  The dirt roads of the western end of the Savannah Way beckoned, with Darwin and the Top End beyond.

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Not a warning, but a temptation.

Beyond The Black Stump

Blackall, QLD. Monday 22nd May 2017

I said at the end of my last blog that it was time to be a tourist once more. So a run through the where and what seems appropriate.
All Aussie towns tend to be interested in, and proud of, their history. Some of the towns in this area have good reason to be too. They’ve known growth, decline, tough times and prosperity. Cattle, sheep and mining. Sometimes all three. And there’s also old bones and a song or two.
Blackall was the first of these I came to, a fairly typical outback town. Except for the fact that it contains a Woolscour. A what? Let me explain. Australia’s early prosperity was built, quite literally, off the back of Merino sheep, over one hundred million of them. Their wool was sent all over the world, although the bulk of it fed the hungry mills of northern England. There was a symbiotic but ironic relationship between the rejected poor of Britain and Ireland, now working on the other side of the world, and the downtrodden poor who worked in the mills. In those days wool was more valuable if all the dirt and, in particular, the lanolin were removed before export. That was the role of the Wool Scour.

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Scouring the wool. The tines on these large forks force the wool through the cleaning solution.

Blackall’s opened in 1907 and operated until 1978, when changes in practice led to its demise. It was steam driven for the whole of that time, using a 15HP engine which powered everything. This scour includes a 20 bay shearing shed, so the wool could be shorn, cleaned and baled all in one place. The cleaning process halved the weight of each bale which reduced shipping costs hugely. More profit, of course. These days its sent to its destination uncleaned, with the lanolin being extracted at the destination for use as a valuable lubricant. Our eighty six year old guide, Graham, explained all this to us. He used to work there and during his time had done every job there was except shearing. The work was hard, hot and very demanding. It’s easy to feel admiration for anyone who lived that life. In 1892 a local shearer named Jackie Howe set an as yet unbroken record for the number of sheep sheared in a day, 321 in under eight hours. And that was with hand shears. That’s amazing, especially when I think back to when I was watching shearers in Tibooburra, where 200 odd is the norm. Jackie also went on to set a record for mechanised shearing of 237, which stood for 58 years. So straight away it begs the question, how can hand shearing be so much quicker than mechanised shearing? The answer is that they didn’t use to shear so close to the skin with the hand shears and the wool was less dense, so it took less time.

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Graham shows us the various types of shears. Jackie Howe used the hand shears when he sheared 321 sheep in an eight hour shift.

There used to be about fifty Woolscours around the country and this is now the only one still in existence that combines shearing and scouring. It took a lot of hard work and heartache to obtain and restore it and the town is justifiably proud of this unique piece of Aussie history. All the machinery still works, including the engine, although unfortunately they hadn’t fired it up that day.

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It’s the effect of the huge flywheel that enables a relatively low powered engine to drive so much machinery.

The other sight I was interested to see was the Black Stump itself. Here’s a direct quote from the tourist booklet: “This site represents the observation site surveyors used to establish a principal meridional circuit traverse around the town in 1888. This surveying was done to gain a more accurate basis for maps of Queensland. The surveyors used the stump for the placement of their transit to gain latitude and longitude observations. The use of a stump rather than a set of legs gave more stability for the transit. As time passed any country to the west of Blackall was considered to be “beyond the black stump”.” So now you know.

Civilisation.                                                   Out in the wilds.

We’ll leave it there, which is what I did as I rode north. Next destination, Barcaldine, but on the way I spent a night at Lara Wetlands. This is an oasis out in the bush. It’s on a 70,000 acre station and the husband and wife owners decided to create it to attract wildlife loving visitors. There is a hot spring, originating deep within the artesian basin. It runs into a shallow depression, forming a small lake. They created a bathing area around the spring and campers can set up anywhere round the edge of the lake. Facilities are minimal and the main attraction is the bird life, which visits the lake and surrounding wetlands, along with the huge sky and its millions of stars. The setting is quite magical in many ways. Tragically, Michael was killed in a helicopter crash soon after they began their project but Josie decided to carry on and finish it off. She did a great job.

Plenty of birds.                                                And a peaceful location.

Barcaldine held my attention for two whole days. I hadn’t planned it that way at all but it just seemed to creep up on me. I’ll explain in a moment.
It’s home to the Australian Workers Heritage Centre. Why locate it here? Because the town was the centre of the sheep shearers’ strike of 1891.
As now, shearers were itinerant workers and moved from station to station at their own expense, often making very difficult journeys during which they suffered hunger and deprivation. They had to pay for their food and board out of poor wages. So when wool prices fell station owners forced pay cuts onto the shearers and shed hands. That could be regarded as simple economics but the shearers expenses didn’t fall along with the price of wool so they simply became poorer. A number of trade unions had sprung up during the 1880s, among them the Queensland Shearers Union, formed in Blackall in 1887. The pastoralists, alarmed at these developments, formed the Pastoral Employers Association in Barcaldine. The stage was set for conflict.
The unions wanted a uniform employment contract with none but union members being employed. The pastoralists set out their ‘freedom of contract’, declaring their right to set wage rates free of union rules. Within two months, at the start of 1891, the strike had begun. Long story short, the shearers lost their battle. After five months of negotiation and then of trying to prevent blackleg labour being brought in, the strike committee was arrested and charged with Conspiracy Against The Crown. Eight of the ten members were convicted and sentenced to three years hard labour. Leaderless and short of funds, the strike collapsed.

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Born out of conflict and necessity.

That battle was lost but the strike led directly to the formation of the Australian Labor (sic) Party. The union leaders realised that the best way to bring about social change was through the ballot box. They encouraged their members to register to vote and Queensland elected the world’s first Labour government in 1899.
In the middle of the high street stands the Tree of Knowledge. It was a large Eucalypt under which the strike committee used to meet, and was subsequently the place where the first Labor Party manifesto was written. It’s a place of great significance to working Australians but sadly it was poisoned by an unknown person in 2006. The tree died but was removed and sent away to be chemically treated so as to preserve it. It’s been surrounded by a hanging wooden sculpture which is very attractively illuminated at night.

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Tree of Knowledge, with its nicely illuminated wooden sculpture.

I had a look around the museum, which focuses on the shearers strike, the efforts made by workers in the building of Australia as a nation, and their continuing role, especially in public services. It was all very interesting but I came away feeling there could have been much more. There were some large buildings with not very much in them.
Earlier, at the visitor centre, I’d been chatting to Mark, who was behind the counter. He suggested I try the Commercial Hotel for some food so I wandered down there later only to find there wasn’t any. So I went to another hotel, ate a nice meal, then came back to ‘The Commie’ for a beer and a chat to Mark. And that was what ‘crept up on me’. The beers. One of the other guys in there asked me if I like Guinness. I said I did and he told me they sell cans of it. So we had a few. I finally left there at 1am and staggered back to my hotel. Which was all locked up despite the landlady having told me it wouldn’t be. I managed to find a way in eventually and collapsed into bed. So the next day was necessarily quiet, having decided that putting myself in charge of a motor vehicle would not be a good idea.

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A complicated game but the result is usually a simple one. You lose!

When I was in the pub I saw that they sold the Aussie lottery cards called Keno. This is a system which originated in casinos, and seems rather complex. You can buy up to ten numbers out of eighty and you mark them on a card. You can ‘invest’ between one and one hundred dollars per game and play between one and five hundred consecutive games. Then watch the draw for the game(s) you’ve joined being made on TV a few minutes later. If any of your numbers are among those drawn you’ll win. The amount depends on how many of your numbers come up and how much you gambled per number. It struck me as being very complex and with an almost instant draw I can see how it could get seriously addictive. I spent a dollar on a game and, of course, won nothing. The pub has a special till for taking money and paying it out, and I noticed that the payout buttons were nothing like as worn down as the others. No surprise there.
Next stop was Longreach. There’s a police training school here and I had been warned to take care. I don’t break speed limits anyway but I was extra careful, just in case there were any spotty faced rookies looking to earn their spurs at my expense. But I had no problems. As I came into the town I saw the entrance to objective number one, the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame, and pulled in. As well as the main display building, this complex includes an entertainment area for equestrian shows and concerts, a replica station homestead and some gardens. I was really only interested in the displays so I coughed up the $27 entry fee and spent a few hours looking and reading.

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‘The Ringer’, with the exhibition building behind the statue.

The galleries tell the stories of the pioneer settlers, their properties and life, the specialist trades and other workers, and the role of indigenous peoples. I’d seen some of these stories elsewhere but here there is every aspect of station life all brought together. There were plenty of displays showing the trades associated with the industry, such as saddlers, smiths, shearers etc. Also about stock workers, focussing on mustering, branding, droving, the routes they used and so on. But I think the most fascinating part of the stories was the role Indigenous People played in the success of the industry. Success? It’s fair to say that in the early days the settlers wouldn’t have survived without their help. They knew where the water was and how to live in this often very hostile land. Over time the effective takeover of their lands drove the Aboriginals onto the stations to work, as a means of survival. Poor reward for their early help. It’s true to say that there was some armed resistance from them, but spears are no much for rifles so it tended to be both sporadic and ineffective. They became cheap labour, both indoors and out, and although they were appreciated on a personal level, they got little more than board and keep in return. When it came to mustering and droving the Aboriginal men, and often women too, became skilled horse riders and whole families would go on the droving journeys. During the wet summers they would usually return to their lands to undertake their ceremonies, thereby keeping in touch with their roots. That was in the early days. As the 20th century rolled on many things changed for the worse. But that story is to be saved for another time.

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Aboriginal women,. Among many women who worked as drovers.

It comes as no surprise that the most important thing for the drovers was water. The railheads were a long way away and, at no more than twenty miles a day, many months were spent on the trail. Stock routes were developed all over Australia, some more successful than others, and often referred to as Long Paddocks. As time went by railheads were extended, so droves became shorter. Post WW2 there was a huge road building programme throughout Australia and eventually road trains took over the movement of cattle and sheep. These days the old stock routes are mostly used by adventurous Aussies in their 4WDs, although today there are still travelling stock reserves, provided by the state governments and used as mustering corridors and grazing during drought.

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Map of the old stock routes. The Canning Stock Route was the longest in the world.

Quite naturally there is an aura of romanticism surrounding the role of stockmen, no different to that of the American west, but without the gunmen. It’s a key part of Aussie history and culture, and helped me to understand better the itinerant lifestyle many Aussie adopt, along with their sense of independence and ‘mateship’.

More soon, in Part 2.

Stopping At The Station.

Canaway Downs Station, QLD. Friday 12th May 2017

Australia’s cattle stations can be pretty damn big. How about over 23,000 square kilometres (9,000 sq miles)? That’s bigger than some countries. In fact that particular one is the biggest in the world. Queensland’s biggest is ‘only’ 15,100 sq kms (5,800 sq miles). In early settlement days they used to talk about how so-and-so’s front gate was fifty miles from their front door. So Canaway Downs isn’t very big by comparison, at 9,000 sq kms. But it’s worth remembering that it’s a family owned business whereas the large ones are usually owned by big companies.
It was nowhere near fifty miles from the gate to the door. I don’t think it was even that far from Quilpie, the nearest town. But when I arrived I was made welcome by Jody and three of her four kids. Her husband, Gerard, manages the station and he and Scott were out working somewhere. Jordan was there too. She’s the kids governess, for want of a better word. The older two boys ‘attend’ the School of the Air and it’s Jordan’s job to help them do their work. Tim is nearly ten so will go to boarding school when the next school year begins in December. Then Oscar will be joined by Sam, who’ll be old enough to start school. I was surprised to learn that the school day is from 7.30 to 3.30,with regular contact with school teachers over the satellite link. Eventually the others returned, along with Stuart and Clint. Stuart is a fencing contractor and had been working there for nearly a year. He also has his own, smaller, station. Clint had recently joined the crew as a general labourer.

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Scott and me.

After a very nice meal we went over to the other house, just across the way, where all we visitors were staying. That included Scott, which struck me as odd at first, considering he owns the place. But of course he isn’t there much of the time and the homestead is occupied by Gerard, Jody and their kids. Most stations have extra accommodation, to house itinerant workers such as musterers. It was certainly comfortable enough, with wi-fi and an esky full of beer.
I was alarmed by how early the alarm call was! I’m not used to getting up in the dark. But the breakfast we had over at the main house was worth it and I’d made it clear to Scott that I wanted to join them out on the fence line and help wherever I could. The work had about two or three weeks left to go. Maybe I’d better explain what’s happening.
Scott, along with the owners of two neighbouring stations, decided to install a kangaroo and dog proof fence around the perimeter of the three properties. The aim is to keep kangaroos, dingos and wild dogs off their land so they can start to run sheep again. At the moment they only run cattle, 2,500 head in Scott’s case. The problem with kangaroos is that they are in competition with the sheep for the same food. The problem with the dogs is that they kill sheep for fun. They attack a sheep, tear its throat out then just leave it there and go to find another one. A dog could kill up to two hundred sheep in one night. Not for food but just because they can. The fencing is very strong and the bottom part is laid flat on the ground so that dogs can’t dig under it. It’s 1.8 metres tall so even a kangaroo can’t jump over it. The job is nearly finished and has taken over one year. It’s expensive to do but fortunately the QLD government provide a grant because they are keen to see more sheep being raised. They’re more labour intensive, which has the effect of boosting the economy in small outback towns. Having seen the way sheep shearers can drink, down in Tibooburra, I can understand what they mean. The state grant will cover around half the cost of the materials required. The stations will cover the rest. The fence will also help prevent the spread of diseases. Gerard told me that about five years ago their cattle suffered an infection which was spread by saliva, and eliminating it cost over $250,000. “But won’t there be loads of ‘roos trapped inside the fence” I asked? “Yes” was the answer “but we’ll cull them by about two thirds and they’ll go for meat.” “How many are there” I asked? “Around 50-60,000,” said Gerard. That’s a lot of meat. And a lot of shooting. It occurred to me that the baker down at Birdsville could be making pies forever more with that lot.

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The mesh is small, so kangaroos can’t get through it, and the bottom of the fence is flat on the ground to prevent digging.

The others headed off in the Ute but Gerard decided to take the plane and I went with him. Now, this was definitely novel, for me at least. I know that many stations are so big that planes are essential for getting around, and given that it took nearly an hour to get to the work site by road it’s easy to see why. Some places even use them for mustering, although small helicopters are more popular. Gerard’s plane is tiny but there was room for two, although I needed to keep my knees and arms clear of the duplicate set of controls. He showed me around a bit on the way out, pointing out some of the key infrastructure, which I’ll return to later.

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Gerard is tall, the plane is tiny.

Scott came out to meet us when we landed and I was immediately set to work driving the light truck, which was the work platform from which the fence posts were driven into the ground. There was a compressor on the back of the truck which powered an air hammer, along with stacks of galvanised steel posts. Clint would hold a post upright at the right spot, Scott would stand on the back of the truck and hold the hammer over the post, so as to drive it down to the correct level, then I’d drive forward ten metres and we’d do it all over again. One hundred fence posts per kilometre, times one hundred and thirty kilometres. Work it out, and then don’t be surprised that the job’s taken a year to complete.
Meanwhile Gerard and Stuart were concreting 100mm diameter steel tubes into the ground at various places. They are about two metres high and are used to provide support to the fencing mesh when it’s tensioned. Some would also support gates. They are strengthened with diagonal supports and these, and the gate hinges, are welded on. I was very impressed by the welder, which has a built in petrol powered generator and can therefore provide power for other tools too. I added that to my list of ‘things I’d like to have in my garage’.

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Drilling holes with an auger, ready to concrete in some fence posts.

The mesh itself comes in rolls of 250 metres and these were kept on the back of one of the three semi-trailers I’d seen in use around the station, hauled by a very old Mack prime mover. A steel tube was inserted into the centre of the roll, which was then pushed into a cradle at the back end of the trailer. Once the new roll had been linked to the old one, using special crimps, the truck was simply driven forward and the mesh laid itself out on the ground, ready to be hooked onto the fencing posts. At intervals we’d come to one of the strong steel tube uprights. At this point a special plate was attached across the mesh, a chain was attached to the plate and was pulled forward, usually using the loader (bulldozer) until there was enough tension in it. The mesh was then cut and wound around the steel post to secure it. Then it all began again.

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Attach chains to this spreader plate and put tension into the fencing. Then tie it off and start again.

Over the five days I was there I spent four of them helping with this huge task. I can’t say that I made any significant contribution but at least I can claim that lots of my sweat, and a few drops of my blood, have been left behind on a station in Queensland which is now in marginally better shape that it was before I arrived.
At one point Scott and I were driving along a track when we saw a kangaroo that had tried to get through one of the other fences and had got its rear legs twisted into the wire. We freed it and left it there to see if it would recover. When we came back some hours later it was still lying where we’d left it, clearly unable to move. No option other than to put it out of its misery, sadly, which Clint did with a the lump hammer. Another casualty of animal and human interaction.

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We’d have been delighted it it had hppped off once we’d freed its legs, but it didn’t.

Scott’s mother, Betsy, came to visit, bringing her partner Barney with her. She now lives in Toowoomba but used to live on the station before Scott’s dad died. Barney owns a vineyard down in South Australia but originally came from the Caribbean island of St Vincent. He’s white and he told me that most white Caribbeans used to be convicts. So I guess he felt right at home in Australia then! Betsy had plenty of tales of the days when she used to help with mustering on her motorbike and she clearly still takes an interest in the station. I’d guess that she’s still a partner in the business.
One morning we all drove out to look at some Aboriginal cave paintings that Scott had come across some time ago. He’d photographed them and sent the pictures to some experts but they couldn’t really make much of them. As the photos show, they’re not really pictorially interesting, except that they’re likely to be hundreds or thousands of years old. Clint is part Aboriginal and was clearly quite moved by them. He said he’d never forget this day as long as he lived and planned to see if his grandfather might have any knowledge of them. They were hidden under an overhang of rock, at a cliff face, which seems to be quite common. Places of this kind were regular meeting venues.
So after that bit of culture it was back to the fencing, which Betsy and Barney were delighted to join in with. Extra hands were welcome as Stuart had now gone off to do other work anyway.

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What do they mean? Nobody knows.

That evening Scott took me, Betsy and Barney up to look at the opal mine on his property. There are several ‘jump ups’ on his land and one of them turned out to be quite rich in usable opals. It seems that they were discovered many years ago and the mine was owned by a businessman from Brisbane. The tops of these hills are flat and this guy had an airstrip laid out so that he could fly out to his mine from the city. But no mining had taken place for the last seventeen years. Why? Well the state mining commission demands that mine workings are not allowed to spread further than the designated area and also that reinstatements must be made once an area is mined out. The mining company failed to meet both these obligations so was ordered to cease activity. They either couldn’t or wouldn’t undertake the the work. Scott said they’d tried to dodge paying for their licences, which had piqued the interest of the commission, with the results described. Serves them right really.

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We were sitting on the other side of this gap, where the hill has been torn away in the search for opals. It’s a mess!

I was amazed to learn that Scott, as land owner, gets next to nothing from the mining operation. There will be a compensation payment made at the start of operations but it isn’t much and there’s no commission payment or profit share to follow. It seems that he owns what’s on top of the land but not what’s underneath it. That means that any prospector can walk onto more or less any land and if they find evidence of valuable minerals they simply peg out a claim. Then they take their evidence to the mining commission and buy a licence from the state government. Then digging begins, however the land owner might feel about it. So we watched the sunset from the top of the hill, mused over the injustices of these things while we drank beer, then walked back down to the Ute and drove home.

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It was quite a nice sunset through the rain clouds at least.

In the morning Scott took Barney and me up in his plane for a look around the property. It was mostly for Barney’s benefit as I’d seen at least some of it before. Scott’s plane is a four seater and I was surprised when he told us it’s fifty years old. It’s very obviously more sophisticated than Gerard’s, and is clearly better suited to the longer distances that Scott tends to cover. But it’s age does at least explain the ‘Morris Minor’ look to the cabin.
One of the key pieces of infrastructure on any outback station is the borehole. A large part of Australia sits above the Great Artesian Basin, and towns and stations have been digging boreholes into this essential water supply since the mid 19th century. But there is a problem with this. Many old boreholes have been abandoned but still have water pouring out. In the early days it was assumed that this water came from annual rain which worked its way down through the rock and was therefore being constantly replenished. Like a giant storage tank. Later studies showed this to be incorrect. The water isn’t from the last wet, the last century or even the last millennia. It’s tens of thousands of years old and once it’s been used will take a similar time to replace. So it needs to be conserved. For this reason Queensland are providing grants to landowners so they can block the old, inefficient bores and drill new ones, to be used far more efficiently. In Scott’s case a 1.7 kilometre bore was dug – twice. The contractors messed up the first one so it had to be done again. Gerard told me the water comes out at 90 degrees and at a pressure of 160psi. Next to the bore head is a dam (a large pond, raised off the ground), and beneath the three metres of water is a giant heat exchanger, designed to cool the water down before it’s dispersed around the whole property. Gerard used Google Earth to design the pipe layout, all 160 kilometres of it! There are several dams around the station so all stock have access to water, wherever they are. It also supplies the homestead but as it’s a little sulphourous tends not to be used for drinking. Rainwater is collected for that purpose. I was fascinated by the whole geological story of the artesian basin but I won’t ‘bore’ you with it here. Follow this link to find out more.  http://www.gabpg.org.au/great-artesian-basin

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The dam has the heat exchanger at the bottom but also allows stock to drink.

Time to move on from Canaway Downs. Five days of experiencing station life, working for my keep and learning a huge amount about this extremely important part of the Australian economy. I was heading across country a bit, not too far though, to meet up with Grace, who was working at a different station. We’d been chatting by email and I was keen to meet a fellow traveller who, judging by her writing, had another viewpoint to add to what it was all about. So after saying goodbye to Scott and the others, I set off.
A three hour dirt road ride found me at Navarra, where I met Andy, the station owner, and Grace, currently working as his offsider (general helper). As well as running the station Andy also has a business supplying solar powered pumps to stations and other facilities. Andy’s property is ‘only’ 60,000 acres and he runs sheep. Currently only 1,000 although he could go up to 5,000, but it’s been too dry to support that number. It seems that the bulk of his work comes from his pump installation business. As with Stuart, the fencing contractor I met at Canaway Downs, I get the impression that owners of smaller station will combine that business with another. Having said that, it was shearing time so mustering and organising the shearers was likely to keep Andy and Grace away from solar pumps for a while.

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The welcoming committee.

Grace and I seemed to hit it off very well. She’s in her late twenties, studied then worked as a lawyer before she started her trip, and has ridden to many parts of Australia.We had a long talk one evening and she told me about the bike problems she’s currently having. It seems that her bike Beastie is being beastly. She rides a KTM690 Enduro and has been having starting problems. She managed to get it to a bike shop not too far from Navarra but it still isn’t right. “It starts eight times out of ten” the shop said. I wouldn’t have been happy with that and neither was Grace. If you’ve read her blog (www.bikehedonia.wordpress.com) then you’ll know that she prefers to camp in out of the way places and that means no help to call on when numbers nine and ten come to visit. Grace has made plans to get Beastie to a place where it will eventually get sorted out, which she’ll follow through with in due course.
Grace and I had a long talk one evening. We offered our stories to each other, chatted them back and forth, and realised that despite our differences in age, gender and starting point, we had much in common with regard to what we want from our travels. I feel that only long distance travellers can truly understand the mindset of one another. Add in the problem of maintaining a motorcycle and you have a unique combination of risk and reward. Our talk helped me to understand better what I’m doing and reinforced in my mind how much I like it.

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Grace takes the opportunity to improve her welding skills.

But Grace has another side to her journey. Compare these two phrases that an unthinking commentator might apply to each of us: “Middle aged man decides to explore the world on his motorbike”; “Crazy young woman risks life and limb by riding across the world”. That summarises the one thing that Grace has had to deal with which would never affect me. It’s very unfair, and Grace had to fight battles even before she started. Fortunately she has good friends who support what she’s doing. I was happy to tell her that I follow three blogs, including hers, and the other two are also written by women who are doing the same as she is. I admire her determination to overcome the negativity as well as all the ‘normal’ problems too.
Meanwhile it had started raining – hard! Hard enough to cause the electricity to cut out after a while. Fortunately Andy had a generator, no surprise there considering the remote location. But I was surprised when, having been conscious of rainfall throughout the night, Andy checked the rain gauge and there was only 18mm. Andy was on the phone half the morning, talking to his neighbours and swapping information about the contents of their gauges. What surprised me was how great a variation there is between areas that, to me at least, don’t seem very far apart. His mother’s station, which I’d ridden through on the way from Canaway downs, is only about 100kms away and had 26mm. All this concern reinforced to me how important rainfall is in the outback. But little though it was, it did stop us from having a night out at the local pub. The nearby town of Yarraka has a pub where the landlord is renowned for his ability to take the mickey out of his customers while taking the money from their pockets. There’s often music too. So we set off but at the first creek crossing Andy looked at the depth board, with the water level at 400mm, and said “This is as far as we go”. I suggested that the Ute should get through that quite easily and Andy agreed. But he said the next crossing will be at least a metre deep and the water was still rising. Oh well, Saturday night out cancelled. Just the beer in the fridge to rely on.

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The creek was rising so we weren’t going out.

One morning I asked Andy if he had any offcuts of steel tubing hiding in his gash bin. Uproars of laughter from him and Grace. They’ve never heard the word used that way before, to mean offcuts and odds and sods, put to one side for future use. It seems to have a completely different, and far less innocent, meaning in Australia. But once the laughter had died down Andy found me a length of tubing that I could use to support my luggage racks. The idea is to quell all the vibrations which will inevitably cause steel tubes to fracture. One side already had and had been welded up by Jock at Handlebar Haven. My plan was to borrow some tools and make the support brace myself but Andy, bless him, simply got on and did the job for me. And once some paint was added later, it looked pretty good.

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Linking the luggage racks together adds support against the dreaded vibrations.

Being, as I am, someone who likes to get involved in new things, and to help out when I can, I will tell you quickly about two such things. The first is mustering, a whole new experience for me. Grace and I rode down to one of the nearby paddocks to bring a small flock of sheep back to the homestead. Andy wanted to select one of them to use to restock the freezer. Now this was going to be a real new experience, watching a sheep being turned into mutton. But it wasn’t to be. We managed to round them up and get them down near the open gate, with Grace herding them and me off to one side, very much under Grace’s command. But I think I must have got too close because they suddenly spooked and ran back up the paddock. I went chasing after them and managed to get them heading back in the right direction, but Grace said to forget it. The sheep were now too stressed to be killed. It seems that a stressed animal supplies tough meat. So it was left for another day.

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Mustering sheep, with all mod cons.

I was much better at the second task, where we went down to the shearers’ quarters and gave the place a spring clean. The accommodation is very basic. A wooden building with iron bedsteads in the rooms, with foam mattresses on top of the bedsprings. A very basic kitchen and dining area and an ablution block across the way where the water is heated by a wood fire burning underneath the tank. I had the impression it hadn’t changed much in decades but the shearers would only be there a few days and their temporary home would be comfortable and clean.
By the time I left Navarra, very happy to have met Grace and Andy, my journey up the learning curve relating to station life had advanced a little further. I know that Grace was way out in front of me, feeding her desire to learn new skills and gain new experiences. Her journey will continue in due course, once she’s ready to press the starter button, do up her crash helmet and head off up the road. I wish her bon voyage and bon chance, in exactly the same way other people have wished it for me. I will add one thing – Grace makes a pretty mean sticky date pudding!

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Grace and Andy.

Meanwhile it was time for me to be a tourist once more. I had many places circled on my map, where people had said “You must go here” or “You must go there”. So I figured I’d better start moving along.

Back To The Outback

Brisbane, 5th May 2017

Pretty much everyone leaves Birdsville, that’s just a fact of life. But how on earth did I now find myself 1600kms east of the town, at Phil’s house, near Brisbane? My plan had been to ride slowly east, stopping to look at the various towns on the way, and also to visit a station. Cattle, that is, not railway. In July 2015 I’d met Scott in the town of 1770, up on the north Queensland coast. He was on a bike tour too and told me he owned a station in far west Queensland and invited me to visit. So, given that I was now in far west Queensland I emailed him to take up that offer. So far, so simple. But I’d also rung up my friend Phil, now returned from Bali, to see when he might be around for me to visit. I wanted to see him before I left Aus. He was about to go away for two weeks so all of a sudden I needed to be there, or I’d miss him. No word back from Scott yet, so I decided on a fast ride east.

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Seen on the road. A sculpture representing an Aboriginal Dreamtime serpent, made from local gibber and gravel.

Windorah, Quilpie, Charlieville and Roma all passed beneath my wheels in a blur of overnight stops, fuel stops and coffee stops. No time now to be a tourist, it would have to wait. But even so, the incidental pleasures of a journey, even a hurried one, are never far away. At a coffee stop in Roma I was ‘held for questioning’ by Donna, the owner of Bakeroma. She saw my riding gear and immediately asked me what bike I was on and where I was going, even interrupting the girl serving me to do so! I took my coffee and scones outside and she came to chat. She passed her test in 2006 and rides a BMW 650GS, which she loves. She goes on trips together with her husband and they have ridden around most of Aus. Retirement will bring more touring but mostly in an Iveco 6.5 tonne expedition van. Hmmm. I’ve often fancied one of those. Eventually I had to move on but that was a nice interlude on a sunny afternoon, talking bikes and travelling, and all the better for being unexpected.

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No, this isn’t Donna. Just someone else I met on the road.

A long third day in the saddle got me to Phil’s place, where I spent a couple of nights, delighted to have caught up with him before he left. He loaned me his garage so I could do some maintenance (I’m REALLY sorry about the carpet Phil!), and I went into the city to get a very much needed new rear tyre fitted. It’s sad to be at the stage of my journey where I’m saying goodbye to my Aussie friends. I saw Colleen at the yoga class and was able to give her a goodbye hug. I left Phil’s exactly two years to the day after he picked me up from the airport on my arrival in Australia. Thanks for everything Phil, you’ve been a great mate.
Northwards now, westwards later. I was heading for Gympie, to stay with David, who I met on the road a while back and who’d done the usual Aussie thing of inviting me to stay. The ride up the motorway was boring, of course, so I was glad to follow Phil’s advice and go to look at the Glasshouse Mountains. Yes, a strange name but the mountains do look odd. They rise out of the surrounding land as if they’ve been dropped from above, a bit like a child’s lumps of discarded playdough. But Cook had named them thus because they reminded him of the waste heaps that surround the glass works near his Yorkshire home. These mountains are the remains of volcanic activity and being on the eastern side of the Great Dividing Range, are nicely green too.

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Glasshouse Mountains. They reminded James Cook of home.

As soon as I got off the bike at the viewing area I was approached by Barry and his son Steve, immigrants from Finchley, North London, forty years ago. More enjoyable bike talk. Barry has a Matchless 500, in racing trim, sitting in his garage. Steve plays around on a cheap Chinese trail bike which he reckons is easily as good as the more expensive bikes his mates use. I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

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Steve and Barry. Immigrants from Finchley.

A quick trip out to the coast to see Noosa Heads, another of Phil’s suggestions. This area has a very tortous coastline, basically salty nooks and crannies surrounded by expensive apartments, shops full of high fashion and coffee shops serving varieties I’ve never heard of. I rode slowly through the touristy streets until I could park by the beach. What the expensive fripperies couldn’t disguise was the smell of the sea. And it was like perfume after so much dusty outback air. A short walk got me to the beach where, once I’d finished gazing at the waves, I saw four scantily clad young women attacking a shiny red BMW convertible with polishing cloths. Another overpriced service for the idle rich? Well, no. I’d come across a film crew on location, working on an advert for O’Neil surfing gear. It was a case of jump out of the car girls, polish it furiously while two surfer dudes looked on, “Cut”. Then repeat, until the director was happy with the shot. It was fun to watch for a short while. I found the chat with one of the production team, just to find out what it was all about, more interesting in the end.

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‘Nice scenery’, some might say. I really liked the car.

I had a nice weekend with David and planned out the journey west. First part of that was to travel slowly and look at the towns I’d rushed through. Second part, which actually came first, was to visit Handlebar Haven, as recommended by Grace. Two questions need answering here: who and what. Grace is a young Sydneysider who set off in February to ride to Paris. Given where she’s got to, you might think it’s all going rather slowly but she keeps finding good reasons to pause and explore. And why not? I found out about her from her blog. It’s here: https://bikehedonia.wordpress.com/ and is well worth reading.
Handlebar Haven is one of the places she’s discovered and is a free camping and occasional music venue, run by bikers just for bikers. Only vehicles with two or three wheels are allowed. It has terraced areas for tents, a camp kitchen, with a BBQ and plenty of pans, plates etc., and a long drop toilet. People are encouraged to just turn up and make themselves at home. No booking or fee is required although a donation is appreciated.

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Miss Behavin’ will welcome you to the site.

It was only a short ride there so I enjoyed a lazy Sunday morning before setting off. “Look for the big pink tyre by the entrance” their Facebook page advises, then says to camp where you feel like and enjoy the facilities. So I found a place for my tent then wandered up to the house. I’d been in touch with the owners, Jock and Annie via Facebook, so I went to say Hi. I was met by a big guy, with a bushy white beard, who immediately gave me a beer, and an attractive, slim woman who immediately gave me a hug. There’s nothing wrong with a welcome like that.

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Home of the last Fuckwit and space for the next one alongside. You have been warned!

Everyone has interesting stories to tell and theirs is a good one. Having got together relatively recently they decided to buy this block of land and break away from the daily grind to build their own place and live off grid. There was already a fairly dilapidated building there, which they’ve slowly improved and turned into a decent place to live. It’s all been done with recycled materials, donated after they put the word out that they were willing to receive any unwanted building products that people wished to donate, or sell very cheaply. In the end they received ‘shed loads’, including a large shed to put it all in! Although there was little financial outlay, they paid for it in the discomforts suffered while the project progressed. Cold showers out in the open; very basic cooking facilities; draughts through the walls. That kind of thing. They rely on rainwater and solar power, plus a generator for big ticket items, such as Jock’s garage equipment. He’s assembled an impressive solar array, with batteries to store the power. It’s the kind of thing I’d love to do one day and I was very impressed. We chatted over dinner and I found out more about Grace, who is currently working on a station further west. She’s had some bike problems too so is working on solutions. Annie put me in touch with her and I hoped to catch up with her later.

Postie bike with quad bike rear wheel.             Solving the problem of lining up the chain.

After breakfast Jock showed me around his shed and his collection of Honda Postie bikes. Aus Post uses thousands of these 110cc bikes for delivering mail but then sell them on after a time. They’re very popular and people love to modify and customise them in various ways. They provide a different kind of challenge for long distance travellers to enjoy too. There’s quite a cult thing going on with them. Jock has modified his by fitting quad bike wheels to it. Plenty of engineering was needed to make that work. Fat wheels replacing narrow ones introduces a few problems to overcome, especially with regard to the chain. He was about to set off on the Great Australian Ride, which runs east to west, From Byron Bay to Steep Point. Another biker charity event. Jock was hoping the fat tyres would help him through the sand of the Simpson Desert. Fascinating stuff. Jock was kind enough to weld up a broken section of one of my pannier frames before I left too. Yet more Aussie kindness and hospitality from two lovely people.

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Jock, Annie and ‘The dog whose name I forget’.

I’d had word from Scott and when I told him I was heading towards Roma he said he had a house in the town and I could stay with him there. The ride over was very relaxed, riding through rolling and sweet smelling countryside. This side of Queensland is pleasantly green and was worth enjoying before returning to the dusty outback. Scott has a traditional Queenslander house, i.e.it sits up on stumps so there’s space beneath the floor for air circulation, essential in the summer heat. It’s a lovely old place and is Scott’s residence. Although he owns Canaway Downs Station, out near Quilpie, it’s run as a business and he has a manager living there. Next morning we went to the same coffee shop at which I’d met Donna (she wasn’t there), for early breakfast and to meet some friends. Scott then flew his plane out to Canaway Downs and I arranged to meet him there a couple of days later. Time to be a tourist once more.

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Big ears.

Having already ridden through Roma from west to east I’d concluded that it was the border between ‘busy’ and ‘bugger all’. Westwards the roads were quieter, narrower and ran through scrub, bush and small towns. To the east there were far more trucks, more industry and much more pastoral activity, with much bigger towns.
The busiest place in Roma lies on the edge of town, in the shape of Australia’s biggest cattle sale yards. I rode out there for a look around. They run free tours on sale days but I was too late for that so I just took myself off on my own tour which, surprisingly, I was free to do. Visitors can move along the walkways, which overlook the cattle pens below. The auctioneer and his assistants move along a lower walkway and customers walk along between the pens at ground level. The photos show what I mean. Bidding takes a very short time and seems to happen in that sort of a secret code that we’ve probably all seen on TV. Once sold, a couple of horse mounted musterers will move the cattle to weigh bridges where the final price is determined. Each pen holds about 30-40 head and there are weaners, store and prime cattle. The first two will be transported to a station to graze and grow big, prime cattle go for food. Steak on the hoof, and plenty of it. I have to admit though, that by the time I’d seen it all I was feeling a bit turned off from meat. But next time I sat down in front of a steak I realised it hadn’t lasted, I’m pleased to say.

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Big humps.

Roma was the first town to be gazetted after Queensland separated from New South Wales, in 1859, so has a long history. It retains some fine buildings from the late 19th century. As with many towns in this area, the need for water was always a problem. Bores were successfully sunk, eventually, but one attempt inadvertently kicked off Australia’s oil and gas industry when natural gas was found at about 3,500 metres. That was in 1899 and the industry has continued there ever since. But that was long preceded by the area’s first cattle station, started in 1860. Cattle have remained at the centre of Roma’s prosperity ever since.

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Big hats.

I took a walk around the town, following the Heritage Trail, which took me past various significant buildings. As mentioned, many of them pubs. There are signboards placed on the pavement to describe the venues’ history and origin. I’ve always been impressed by towns that do this and it is, thankfully, very common. A walk down past Bungil Creek took me to Roma’s largest Bottle Tree, with a circumference of 9.51 metres. These trees are common in this area and the town also has an Avenue of Heroes, where one hundred and forty of these trees, each with a plaque, represent the town’s fallen from WW1.

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The Big Bottle Tree. 9.51 metres girth. You could get a lot of your favourite tipple inside there!

There are a variety of other sites to visit, particularly the story of the oil and gas industry at the Big Rig, but one man can’t visit everything in one day and I needed to move on.
Charleville was next on the list for a proper visit. Roma was all about cattle, the early history of Charleville was all about sheep, and mostly still is. But for a long period it was all about aviation. Famous fliers landed and lodged there; QANTAS launched its first government sponsored mail route from there; it was a marshalling and maintenance base for two hundred and fifty American B17 bombers. When I went on the Top Secret WW2 Tour I discovered these things, along with many others. But perhaps the most interesting item on this tour, and the reason for the ‘secrecy’, was the Norden Bomb Sight. Here’s the story.

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This is what all the fuss was about.

This bomb aiming sight was invented by Dutch engineer Carl Norden and developed by his engineering company, set up after he emigrated to the USA. The device was mounted in the nose cone of B17 Flying Fortress bombers and, through a combination of compasses and gyroscopes, enabled very precise targeting. An auto pilot device held the plane steady for the necessary twenty seconds while the bomb was released. Its accuracy was reckoned to be good enough to land a bomb within a thirty metre wide circle from as high as 6.4 kilometres. Or, as the air crews put it, to “land a bomb in a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet.” In reality it wasn’t anywhere near that good. The base was used for training bombardiers in the use of this equipment but it was so top secret that it was taken to the plane under armed guard. The air force was so concerned about it falling into enemy hands that its cradle was fitted with an explosive device and the bombardier was under strict orders that, in the event of being shot down he had to set it off before baling out. Our guide reckoned that none of them reached the enemy during flying operations.

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For the technical among you, here’s how it worked.

Both before and after WW2 the airfield was a significant place. It was a compulsory fuel stop during the 1934 London to Melbourne air race for example. Many famous fliers of that era stopped over, including Amy Johnson. The airfield lies on one of the great circles of navigation and, because of its three kilometre long runway, is an official emergency landing strip for commercial jetliners. It’s come a long way since that first QANTAS flight took off.
On the way east I’d stayed at the Corones Hotel, a superb building from the early 20th C, whose design had touches of Art Deco in it. It was built by a Greek immigrant Harry Corones, who had the foresight to be an early investor in QANTAS. Most of the passengers would stay there, including many famous people. It’s a lovely building, inside as well as out, with very high, richly decorated ceilings. It wasn’t hard to imagine what an oasis of comfort it must have provided for plane passengers, suffering basic seating in small, noisy planes.

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The Corones Hotel is a very fine example of outback architecture.

Inner Queensland suffered a very long and debilitating drought at the end of the 19th century but Charleville thought they had the answer. In 1902 they hired meteorologist Clement Wragge to shoot at the clouds and persuade them to rain. No, this wasn’t the action of people driven mad by thirst. It was actually a scheme which carried a fair bit of logic. The Vortex Gun was already used in over 6,000 locations across Europe to disperse hail-bearing clouds, with some success. So there was a good chance that they may have the opposite effect. They hoped the rapidly rising charge from the guns would persuade the clouds to release rain. Charleville was one of three locations where the experiment was run, all with no success whatsoever. In fact a few of the guns exploded, injuring some spectators. Fortunately the rains arrived later that year anyway.

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Vortex Guns, looking like something out of a Terry Gilliam film.

Clement Wragge was very accomplished in his field and was the first person to produce long range weather forecasting, making use of data gathered from the scores of observation sites he set up around Australia. He was the first person in the world to give names to cyclones and given that he named several of them after Australian politicians, reckoning them to be natural disasters as well, it was no surprise that he failed to be appointed as Commonwealth Meteorologist, following federation in 1901. He set up his own successful forecasting business instead.

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All about Clement Wragge.

Before I left town next morning I called in at the Historic House Museum. A former bank, it was full of all sorts of stories, photos and household and farm implements. I was more fascinated by what was outside though. I was particularly taken with two items. Firstly a steam engine, looking big for only 10 H.P. Obviously shire horses, not racing ones. The sign said it had been used to power a shearing shed up until 1972. That seems ridiculous until you realise that many outlying stations weren’t connected to the electricity grid until the 1990s.

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Built by the Coventry Motor Company, with a 10HP engine, this was one of ten rail ambulances used throughout Queensland. It ran from the mid 20s to the mid 50s.

The second item was a rail ambulance car. These were introduced in the 1930s and enabled patients from outlying areas to be taken to hospital. Usually’’’’’’’’ impossible when the wet season rendered the unsealed roads of the area impassable. Both of these items emphasised how difficult life was in these outlying places and how recently it was that modernisation arrived.
But now it was time to head out to Scott’s cattle station to see it all for real. A long and boring road took me to Quilpie, and got me envying Scott his plane, before taking to the dirt road that led me out to Canaway Downs.