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.

2 thoughts on “Back To The Outback

  1. Bob Hines says:

    Yet another really fascinating read Geoff,how do you find the time? Bob

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