Circles In The Sand

Tibooburra, New South Wales. Sunday 23rd April 2017.

I rode out of Broken Hill on the third anniversary of my departure from home. I couldn’t begin to count how many towns I’d ridden out of since that day. I could only remember countries, and there were eighteen of those behind me. Ahead of me was the small town of Tibooburra, more than 300kms along the Silver City Highway, part dirt, mostly bitumen. I’d left late so I got my head down and got on with it.
As I neared Tibooburra I could see clouds way over on the horizon and these weren’t pretty, fluffy ones. They were big and dark, were delivering rain onto the land and I was riding straight towards them. Those of you who ride will know that feeling of inevitability, that knowledge that you’re going to get wet. But wait! The road suddenly took a turn away from the clouds and towards the sun. I cheered up. Then both gloom and gloominess came over me as the road turned back towards them and soon after, the heavens opened. So I stopped to zip everything up and pressed on, thankful that I didn’t have far to go. Even so, I was very pleased when I saw the sign for the town hove into view.

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Rather a nice way to announce your town, with well crafted sculpture.

Soon enough I pulled up outside the Tibooburra Hotel, also known as the Two Storey. Why? Because it’s the only building there that is. It wasn’t too much money for a room, or the Sunday special meal, or a couple of beers. I felt right at home. The bar was busy with locals and a few other travellers. Most of the people there seemed to be from surrounding stations, enjoying a Sunday night pizza and beer. I fell into conversation with one young lad, named Jake, who was working as a roustabout at one of the sheep stations. He told me he’d just got back from mustering cattle out near Alice Springs. I asked him what bikes he’d been using but he said they used utes, as bikes weren’t safe. Why? Partly because of the termite mounds hidden in the bush, which would be like riding into a concrete bollard, but also because the young bulls don’t take too kindly to being moved and will sometimes charge the vehicle. Not good fun if you’re on a bike.
The conversation led to him suggesting I come out to the station to watch the shearing. Tracey, who owns the hotel, also owns the station, with her husband. Like a traditional separation of roles, she ran the hotel while her husband ran the station. So she was quite happy about me going out there and said she’d let her husband know.
Jake’s working life is a perfect example of the itinerant style that many Aussies have adopted over the decades. He moves to where the work is and does what there is to do. He’ll concentrate on what he’s good at and what he enjoys, and at the moment he has ambitions to become a sheep shearer. These cattle and sheep stations provide quite well paid work for the Jakes of the locality, and will always provide bed and board as part of the deal. I chatted to a couple of other characters too, both of whom had similar stories to tell. Tales From the Outback.

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A Merino sheep ready for her annual trim.

My visit to the shearing sheds at Gumvale Station was fascinating. Having visited a shearing shed before, albeit not in use at the time, I knew what the layout would be. But seeing it in use was a different experience altogether. Five shearers, two roustabouts, one sorter and one wool presser. Loud music playing and wool all over the place. The calmest of those present were the sheep. They’re held in small pens inside the shed, behind each shearer’s position. He’ll go in and grab one, shear it then shove it down a small chute from where it goes back outside to a pen with all the other bald ones. They’ll get painted with a bright yellow chemical to protect them from sheep mite and will eventually be taken back to one of the paddocks to continue eating grass and growing wool, before doing it all again the next year. Meanwhile they’ll have a lamb or two, just to keep things turning over. Here’s a short video of how it’s done. (http://bit.ly/2qxVttj)

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Jake tidies up the fleece before passing it to the sorter.

The roustabouts take the fleeces from the shearers, pull off the loose and dirty bits from their edges then pass them to the sorter. He will lay each one out on a table, grade it then put it in one of three cages, depending its on colour and quality. The ‘offcuts’ will get used for things like gloves and socks, the main fleeces for better quality material. All the wool goes through a machine which presses it into bags holding 200kg of wool. The bales are stencilled with the grade of wool, the name of the station and a bale number. They’ll be transported off to a merchant’s when shearing is complete. None of the wool is wasted. Here’s a short of video, showing how it’s done. http://tinyurl.com/lpv6yhq
The whole operation is run by a contractor who, with his crew, moves around from station to station. So here’s a few facts and figures, as told to me by Damian, the contractor. They’ll shear about 16,000 sheep at Gumvale; at about 1,000 per day it will take them around three weeks; the shearer gets paid by the fleece, $3 each one; the others get paid by the ‘the run’, which is a two hour period; there’s four per day with a smoko between each run; they’ll get $180-200 per day, more for the sorter. Damian reckons to work forty eight weeks of the year and a good shearer will earn $110,000 per annum. Two hundred sheep per day, five days a week for forty eight weeks. I tried to work out how many sheep that is but I was nodding off before I’d managed it.

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After the shearing. It looks painful but they didn’t seem to be bleating about it too much.

I chatted with Craig, another guy I’d met at the hotel the previous night. He didn’t seem to be doing very much so I asked him what his role was. He said “I just fix things up around here.” I later learned he is the owner of the station (Tracey’s husband), leaving me feeling a bit sheepish. But his comment was accurate really. The contractor runs the shearing show, and all Craig was there to do was to make sure things went smoothly for the shearing crew. So we were able to enjoy a nice chat too, mostly finding out about the way stations are owned and run. After a while one of the shearers invited me to have a try so I took his place with the sheep between my legs and did a bit of shearing. I wasn’t very good, if I’m honest, but at least it gave an idea. The sheep was OK with it too.

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A quick spray of sheep mite preventative before being allowed out to eat more grass.

After that truly educational afternoon the following morning was a much more sober affair. It was ANZAC Day, and the 25th of April is the day for remembering all those who’ve died in the various conflicts. The date is the anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gallipoli, the ANZAC’s first engagement of WW1. Although Remembrance Sunday is also commemorated, this is the bigger day for Aussies. There was a dawn service, which I didn’t get to, but I attended the 11.00am wreath laying ceremony at the memorial site. A wreath was laid on behalf of pretty much all the businesses and organisations in this very small town. As usual at any of these events I attend, I felt both sad and angry. I don’t think I really need to explain why.

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Time to remember.

Afterwards I had a look at the stories on display inside the memorial hall then went across to the other pub in town, where someone had declared their intention to pay for all the drinks that were bought in the first hour. Midday is normally far too early for me to be drinking but when a kind hearted soul wants your help to spend their money, well it’s a duty really, isn’t it?
The TV was showing the dawn service from Gallpoli and then from France. Simon, the sorter from the shearing crew, kept going over to get a closer look at the ceremony in France and I asked him why. He said his grandmother’s cousin died there and he’ll be going over to visit his grave next year. That took me straight back three years, to when I’d met an Aussie couple in Belgium on the first day of my trip. They were there for the same reason. The anger I’d been feeling was still bubbling under. Enough that later on, when I went onto Facebook, I let rip at a couple of people who had posted an anti immigrant and a pro war meme. I normally try not to react to these idiots but sometimes …….!

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Vietnam war veteran Johnny Ainsworth.

It had rained heavily during the night leading into ANZAC Day so my plans to leave were held up. The track I needed to take was closed. There’s heavy fines for using closed tracks. A bit of bike maintenance filled the time and I got a broken mudguard stay welded up and also changed the oil. The guy who did the welding is also responsible for the rather nice sculptures that welcomed me to Tibooburra. Some other bikers came through town, heading out to Cameron Corner, the same destination as mine. We had some chats about road conditions and so on. It made me smile when we also found ourselves comparing injuries and how we got them. We mutually agreed that the young riders of the group were welcome to their fast bikes and faster riding style. We were happy to take things easy and get there in one piece.

Isak and Mike.  Not young guns any more, but cautious. Just how I’ve learned to be.

A visit to the national park rangers’ centre had helped me form a plan for the next stage, which was to take a slightly longer route than I would have done and go through the  Cameron Corner it was on to Innamincka, where I met my Waterloo last August.
With the road now open and reckoned to be dry I headed up into the national park to have a look at the Jump Ups and Dune Country. The Rangers’ office had provided me with a couple of leaflets. Their availability reflected the fact that adventure touring into this region was getting ever more popular and the need for information was growing accordingly. This is good news for small settlements like Tibooburra because it brings in money and creates employment. Without it many such places would be struggling.
I really enjoyed the ride. The tracks were challenging enough, but not outrageously so, and I adopted all the right principles for staying upright on the dirt, thereby having great fun. So what are the Jump Ups, I can hear you all asking? It’s simply the name given to mesa type hills that ‘jump up’ from the surrounding plain. This area used to be part of a vast inland sea and later, when it dried up, rivers and valleys formed. The silt of the riverbeds hardened into silcrete but the softer land around them eroded away once the water had disappeared. So here we have former river beds now lying above the surrounding land.

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‘Jump Ups’ seems to fit, somehow.

The dunes developed during a long period of very dry weather, about 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, when the area would have been uninhabitable. As rainfall increased plants gradually stabilised the dunes and gave us the terrain we have today. The dunes are very noticable in an otherwise flat land. Many creatures live in this still harsh environment although one type of former inhabitant no longer does.
The Aboriginal tribes that occupied these lands were driven out when settlers moved in. It was a true clash of cultures and there simply wasn’t any way for them to retain their original lifestyle alongside Europeans and their desire to fence off land. There was no real contest between the two and when the severly misnamed Aboriginal Protection Board was set up in the late 19th century, that was the end. Many of their children were taken from them to be trained as domestic servants and stockmen in an attempt to Europeanise indigenous people. They died of European diseases and eventually, in the 1930s, they were moved from their land and placed into reserves hundreds of kilometres away. It’s only in recent times that their descendants have begun to reconnect with their original land, mostly thanks to the formation of the national parks. But of course, this is a common story throughout Australia and I’ve written about it before.

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Big, red and sandy.

I eventually reached Cameron Corner, the place where three states meet and where, because of time zone differences, new year can be celebrated three times. The woman there remembered me from last August and when I told her about the accident I’d had soon after leaving, she made me feel a whole lot better by telling of many other such incidents that had taken place nearby, most of them far worse than mine.
So on to Innamincka after a night camping in the bush, enjoying a most wonderful starry sky. It really is something quite special to be out in the wilds, hearing the dingos howl and gazing at the milky way. Yes indeed, with a night like that following a terrific day’s ride, I most definitely was back in the travelling groove. I rode past the place where I’d come off the bike last year with nary a twitch of the wheel, and reached Innamincka.
Unfortunately Geoff and Nichelle, the managers who’d been so kind to me after my accident, were away. So I left them a message of greeting, bought a coffee for me and fuel for the bike, and carried on up the Cordillo Downs Road. I was heading for Birdsville on attempt number three.

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Remembering an essential group of people without whose work Australia would not have been opened up.

By about 4pm I realised I’d taken a wrong turn. It’s true to say that the Strzelecki Desert isn’t exactly Hyde Park Corner when it comes to choices of route but the area has plenty of industrial sites, which are visited by trucks. In this case I’d followed the obviously ‘main’ track, as marked by the truck wheels, and ended up at a satellite and oil storage facility. I completely missed the ‘No Through Road’s sign. As I’d been riding along the track a truck coming the other way had stopped, the driver and I chatted, he even gave me a couple of boiled eggs. But the one thing he didn’t do was to ask me why I was riding along to a dead end. If only he’d been more curious! By now it was too late in the day to back track and I knew I was too tired to ride the rather sandy track again, so I found a place to camp for another fabulously starlit night in the bush.
Back at the junction next morning I turned left, straight into deep sand. The condition of the track made it clear that no trucks ever came this way and being in a national park, the track therefore received very little maintenance. As far as I was concerned the park authorities were leaving things just a little too ‘natural’. It was tough going until I did what others had done before me. I took to the ground next to the track where a new route had been formed. Apart from having to keep a sharp eye out for gullies, it was far better. When the track improved I rejoined it, when it worsened I left it. In this way I finally made it to the northern extremity of the park whereupon the track reverted to well maintained and solid ground, albeit extremely stony.

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Gibber Plain. Nothing but stones and sand. Not a blade of grass to be seen.

The track now crossed what’s known as Gibber Plain. Gibber is an Aboriginal word for stone and had they tried to count them they would have been gibbering for evermore. There were millions of them! They made the track tough on the bike but all that mattered to me was that it wasn’t sand.
I stopped to look at The Old Woolshed, a building that used to be a shearing shed for Cordillo Downs Station. Unusually for buildings in the outback, it was built of stone. Most of them seem to be of tin and wood. But it made sense out here because there was no shortage of sandstone boulders to use but not a single stick of wood to be seen. The roof is made from tin (corrugated iron) and was chosen because its light weight meant that fewer supports were needed, leaving far more room inside. In its heyday the building used to have 120 shearing positions, and with about 30,000 sheep, it took about three weeks to complete. It looked very nice as it glowed in the afternoon sun. Further up the track I saw another ruin, this time a disused homestead, also of sandstone, where I stopped for lunch and to put some spare fuel in the bike. And it wasn’t long after that I reached the main road into Birdsville.

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The Old Woolshed. An unusual building for this part of the country.

This was still a gravel road but was wider, mostly smoother and therefore faster. But tempting as it was to up the speed I took it steady. I didn’t want to fall at the last hurdle. Eventually I reached Queensland’s most westerly town, Birdsville. At the third attempt and ten months after first trying; after turning where I’d been into where I was going; after almost literally squaring the circle; I’d finally got there. I just hoped it would be worth it.

4 thoughts on “Circles In The Sand

  1. Jim Barney says:

    Great reading Geoff. It’s my favourite part of our country and will be out there again in about three weeks.
    Keep safe
    Jim.

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