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.

Birdsville

Birdsville, Queensland. Saturday 29th April.

It’s a strange little town, is Birdsville. The welcome sign paints the picture quite well. There aren’t many permanent residents but two events during the year swell the population by up to sixtyfold. The busiest of these is the long standing Birdsville Races. First held in 1882, for local stockmen to show their skills, it now attracts entries from all over Australia and crowds of over 6,000, with many flying their own planes in. It’s held over the first weekend in September and is a huge event. http://www.birdsvilleraces.com

The second is the more recently introduced Rock Festival, aptly named The Big Red Bash. Attracting over 3,000 people last year it’s held 35kms outside Birdsville, on the edge of the Simpson Desert, over the first weekend of July. This usefully coincides with school holidays so it is a family event for many. Big Red is a huge sand dune and it becomes the backdrop for three days of rock, country music and desert madness. While the big stars play in front of the dune the bigger stars look down from the firmament, probably wondering what it’s all about. Many people turn their journey into an outback challenge by driving long distances from the major cities. Read about it here.

http://tinyurl.com/y7d75jby

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The sign says it all.

But as the headline date tells you, I wasn’t there for either of those and yet there was an air of excitement about the place. Not exactly a breathless rushing about among the townfolk, but there was certainly an air of anticipation among a couple of motorcyclists I met. It seemed that Stuart Ball was in town! Or rather, he wasn’t but would be back soon. Let me explain.
Aussie bikers are just as madcap as any bikers anywhere and with such a vast country to play in they do love to set records wherever they can. In this case Stuart had his sights on the one for crossing the infamous Simpson Desert, from Birdsville to Mount Dare, and back again. It stands at 23 hours 38 minutes and Stuart had left at 9pm the previous evening. Therefore his return was eagerly anticipated. But chatting to his KTM riding friend later on I learned that he hadn’t made it. In fact he hadn’t even got close. He’d decided to sleep out on the dunes, about 200kms away. He was exhausted. It wasn’t so much the distance which did for him, it’s only around 880 kms, as the sand, which comes in all the forms that a desert can manage. Deep; loose; dunes big and small; but mostly just too much of it. And then there’s the thick clay on the salt flats. He’d fallen off over twenty five times. I hate sand. He has all my sympathy. But the thing that grabbed my attention was that he was riding a CCM, the same model as mine. This ties in with something that happened back in Tibooburra. I’d been out, and when I came in Tracey told me someone had seen my bike and had stopped to ask after the rider. It was Stuart on his journey north to Birdsville, with his bike on the back of a Ute. So now I felt a kinship and also felt his disappointment at not breaking the record. Stuart was doing this ride for a SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) charity, which is well supported by the Aussie biking community.

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Stuart, Sarah and CCM GP450.

At the camp site I bumped into various other bikers too. A couple of old codgers (my age) who were heading south to Innamincka. A male/female couple on His’n’Hers Suzuki DR650s. Four guys on various bikes who were about to tackle the Simpson but had the good sense to be accompanied by a 4WD, which would carry their luggage. All of them out to have fun on the tracks of SW Queensland and South Australia. I felt in good company. But I couldn’t help thinking that it must be an interesting life for the residents of Birdsville. Two very busy events to cope with each year, then fill the rest of the time waiting for various nutcases to turn up and amuse you. And for them to help keep your camp site, servo, shop or hotel ticking over, of course.

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Fascinated to see a BMW K75 converted into a trail bike.

So what else is there to see in Birdsville? Not a great deal, is the answer, although I suppose it depends on your expectation levels. Even so, I enjoyed my walk around. The iconic Birdsville Bakery was worth a visit. It sells pies filled with beef, sheep, camel, pig or kangaroo. Supplied with all kinds of flavouring cooked in. All of those are local fauna. Sorry vegetarians, nothing grows out in these parts to put in a pie, so it’s all meat. I promised the owner I’d be back later, deadline 4pm.

The Birdsville Hotel is a nice old building, in the typical outback style, filled with typical outback people. I did like the way that when a customer ‘hangs up his hat’ for the last time, the pub will then hang up his/her hat, literally.

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The deceased customers no longer need these hats.

The bore outlet, which supplies the town with water, delivers a near boiling point supply which has to be cooled before being piped to the populace. It comes up from the Great Artesian Basin. More about that in a later blog post.

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Steaming hot water, fresh from Mother Earth.

Afghan Cameleers helped open up central Australia by providing transport to places where horses simply couldn’t go. Too much heat and not enough water. There is a nice series of sculptures to honour them. Another set of sculptures reflects the annual races. In both cases the medium used is corrugated iron. It’s surprisingly effective and is very apt, given that this was, and still is, the most common building material used in these parts. Cheap, efficient, but, most importantly, easy to transport out to this treeless region.
I walked out to Two Boys Dreaming, which isn’t a couple of youngsters taking a siesta but is a trail which snakes its way through an area that used to be used for Aboriginal ceremonies. The serpent is probably the creature that features most often in the Dreamtime stories, which Aboriginals use to explain the world. The trail finished up at a billabong. Plenty of water but no swagmen or jumbucks.

Tribute to the Afghan Cameleers.                          And to the Birdsville racers.

OK, time for a ride out to have a look at the famous Big Red, located about 35kms out to the west. But as I rode past the hotel I saw a CCM, propped against the wall. Stuart was obviously back in town. “Very casual parking”, I thought, until I noticed that the side stand was missing; clearly a casualty of the trip. I parked my bike nearby and was just taking some photos when Stuart, and his girlfriend Sarah, came out of the pub. He’d heard my engine and told me he’d seen my bike in Tibooburra. So he told me all about his ride and I expressed both sympathy and admiration. He’d borrowed the importer’s demonstration bike and said he loves it, perfect for his record attempt. We chatted for a while but I had a date with a dune and told him I’d see him later.

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Two of a kind. Used in completely different ways.

The road west goes over Little Red as it heads out into the Simpson Desert. I turned off just before it and made my way to Big Red. Does it live up to the hype? Well yes, as far as Aussie dunes go. This is the highest in Australia, is definitely red, and once I’d struggled up it I could see why people liked it. A great place for playing in your 4WD or on your dirt bike, as the tracks all round the top clearly showed. I stood there looking around and imagining how it would be on a cold desert night in July, with bands playing and people boogieing under the stars. I could easily see the attraction. As I stood there I thought about the rainy, muddy hell of Glastonbury and knew which venue I’d rather be at.

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Why was I photographing sand? I hate sand!

As I said I would, I called in to the bakery on the way back but it had just closed. I was too late. But the owner was still inside and when he saw me, he opened the door. I apologised for being late, he was in the process of emptying out the pie warmer and told me what was left. I chose lamb and curried camel. He said “Take them, compliments of the house” I suspect they’d have been thrown away anyway but I thanked him and rode slowly back to the camp site, where I gratefully polished them off.

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The famous Birdsville Bakery.

Over to the pub next, where Stuart and Sarah eventually came down. We were joined by several others and had a great night chatting about bikes and broken bones. Sarah is a paramedic and has dealt with a few. I’d broken quite a few, so we had a lot in common. Stuart is British and came out here twenty one years ago with five mates. Two of the group didn’t go home again. He spends his working life involved with bikes and is constantly looking for new challenges. He loves his Aussie life and I don’t blame him. He’s even got the Aussie beard!
By the time I left Birdsville I was definitely glad that I’d come. It was worth all the effort, even though there isn’t a huge amount to see. I think the town’s involvement in peoples’ ‘grand journey’ is what gives it its aura. It’s the gateway to some tough travelling. With the exception of the two annual events, most people come just to get supplies, gather their strength and then move on. And that is what I did too.