Topping Off The Tour. Part 2

Wangi Falls Camp Site, Litchfield National Park. Thursday 15th June, 2017

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Wangi falls, Litchfield NP

Litchfield National Park. It’s not far from Darwin, less than half a day’s ride, and was the first place I chose to visit on my ‘final tour’. I camped at the Wangi Falls campground for a couple of nights and explored the park from there. It’s a usefully compact park, only 1,500 sq kms, but with plenty to see. There’s five different waterfalls, tumbling down off the sandstone rock outcrops. Beneath most of them are swimming holes, with cool, clear water in which to take a refreshing swim. I sampled those delights at Wangi Falls twice, particularly when I’d returned from a hot and sweaty walk around the trail above the spectacular Tolmer Falls. The area beneath those falls isn’t accessible for swimming, being a special place for the local Aboriginals. I also took a look at the Magnetic Termite mounds. There’s an area which has hundreds of them, almost like they were planted there. I’d seen them before, up on Cape York, two years previously. The termites build them with a north/south orientation so they always have a shaded side to escape the heat in. Some species can be very destructive to buildings, but not these. They are often referred to as White Ants but are actually related to cockroaches. Their bodies are almost translucent and they have no defence against the sun or its heat.

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Florence falls and their popular swimming hole.

The Bamboo Creek tin mine was a reminder of people’s determination to extract value out of the land. They managed to haul in some heavy machinery, including a large engine. Opened in 1906, it became too difficult to extract the ore because of water ingress and it was abandoned in the 1950s. The rusting machinery left behind is a testament to the tough mining life and the tough men that lived it.

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Old tin mine workings, up on the hillside. Industrial archaeology in natural surroundings.

At the camp site I met another biker, named Jorge, a German now living in Leeds where he is a vet. His sister lives in Aus and he asked her to obtain a bike for him. She managed to get him a Kawasaki KLR650, fully equipped with panniers, at a great price. A French guy was selling it urgently so he could buy a plane ticket home. Stress sales can be a great way to find a bargain. Jorge was very happy with it and I’m not surprised.

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Jorge and his nice’n’cheap Kawasaki KLR650.

Talking of bikes, I discovered a fault with mine,of  which I had been conscious for a few days. The battery had gone fairly flat while I was in Darwin and wouldn’t always start the bike. On my Suzuki that was never a problem because I’d had a kick start as back up. No such thing on this one, so I’d bought one of those Lithium Ion battery packs that can be used to charge electronic device,s and also to jump start cars. It’s not very big, and I had doubts about its capability, but it always did the job, for which I was very grateful. While I was at the camp ground I decided to run some tests, enlisting Jorge’s help, and quickly realised that the bike’s alternator stator wasn’t working properly. There was enough output to run the bike, once it was started up, but not enough to charge the battery too. I knew I’d be OK until I left Australia, but it was another item on the list for the factory to replace under warranty. It was a bloody nuisance though and the hassle of constant jump starting tended to discourage me from making unplanned stops to look at things!

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Flying in to check my braking system. I stayed clear!

After Litchfield I decided to head down to Douglas Hot Springs, a bit further south. I’d met another biker on a camp site who had recommended them, and they sounded good. I really do wish I hadn’t listened! On the way there I was on a dirt road and came to a creek crossing. It wasn’t wide or deep so I went across at a sensible speed, but stood up on the footrests. Usually I’d be sitting down with my feet close to the ground. What I hadn’t realised was that the road base was concrete and, of course, was covered in slippery weed. As I came out of the creek the rear wheel slid round and I came off the bike. It was all at low speed but I landed awkwardly enough to bruise a rib and my foot got twisted round as I came off. The result was a twisted ankle, which was to give me trouble for several weeks. I could walk on it, so I knew nothing was broken, just for a change. But it was swollen up and appropriately painful. I managed to get to Douglas Springs and camped there for a couple of days. The problem was that the river water was hot when all I wanted was cold! There were no facilities there to speak of, so nowhere to get any ice, or similar. I paddled in the hot springs but my heart wasn’t really in it. Once I felt rested enough I headed for the town of Katherine and booked into a hostel to rest up.

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Twisting the night away.

My initial booking of three days grew, a few days at a time, into seven. I long ago learned the art of sitting still and to avoid the urge to be doing things. And my sore ankle encouraged that attitude. I bought ice and placed bags of it over the swelling. The bruising gradually went down but the ankle itself stayed swollen up and stiff to move. After a few days one of the other guys there offered me some heavy duty anti inflammation tablets. He said to only take one a day. He’d got them in Thailand when he pulled a shoulder muscle. I took one that evening and in the morning it was as if a miracle had happened. The swelling had gone right down and I could walk without limping. Wonderful! He gave me a few spares, which I took over the next few days, reveling in the relief they brought.

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Katherine Gorge from the cliff top above.

Katherine isn’t a very big place, with only a few tourist sites within the town. But there are several in the area around it. Nitmiluk National Park is the most significant. It includes Katherine Gorge, a series of thirteen gorges strung along the Katherine River like green pearls. They can be explored by canoe or on foot, but I sensibly chose to visit them on an organised boat trip. I only explored two out of the possibe three, which involved changing boats half way along. At this time of year the water level is too low to pass from one to another. It was fascinating to see how high up the water reaches in the summer months – easily five metres above the winter levels. The gorges are, of course, beautiful, with plenty interesting geology. One of these was a feature known as sub gorges. Land movement causes gaps to open up in the cliffs that line the gorge, creating sub gorges, which sit opposite each other. I hadn’t seen this before.
On the rock face near where we changed boats was some Aboriginal rock art. The Jawoyn people are the traditional owners of this area. They were among the first Aboriginal groups to successfully reclaim ownership of their land. As is common now, they immediately leased it back to the government so that a national park could be created.

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Between the gorges, where we have to walk past the rocks.

Katherine suffered from Japanese bombing during WW2, the furthest point south to do so. It was a base for troops and a supply line for invasion forces too. This information was on display in the town museum, along with much else. The town itself only started when a bridge was built across the river as the railway headed south from Darwin. The original town of Emungalan, centred around the new telegraph station in the 1870s, had many of its buildings moved there. Pastoral activity supported that town too, as did mining activity. The river had been named by explorer John Stuart, chosen in honour of the daughter of one of his sponsors, as he headed north. Perhaps the most significant incident in the town’s history was the flooding of 1998, when the river rose by twenty one metres and destroyed most of the centre of town. There had been others before, but this was by far the worst. But the town recovered and nearly twenty years later it thrives as a busy regional centre.
One of the strong impressions left by the town was how close it is to the edge of nowhere. There’s several towns on the way north to Darwin of course, but the road sign to the south told me that the nearest place of any significance was Alice Springs, all of 1,200kms away. To the west it’s Kununurra, over 500kms. To the east? Nothing. Just bush. It brought home the size of Australia and just how vast and remote the Top End is.

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The nest of a Bower Bird.

With the clock ticking, and my injuries feeling much better, I decided it was time to explore Kakadu National Park, lying north and east of Katherine. At almost 20,000 square kilometres, it is the Territory’s largest and the second biggest in Australia. Its wetlands are visited by vast numbers of migratory birds and it is populated by a huge variety of flora and fauna. I wanted to take a closer (but not too close) look at one of these, Estuarine Crocodiles – or Salties, as they’re called. The biker who had told me about Douglas Springs also mentioned Cahill Crossing, where the crocs go to catch fish along with careless tourists. Definitely intriguing enough to be worth my while. I had already seen plenty of natural beauty, which often involved walking, so me and my still painful ankle where going to limit the sightseeing to the Aboriginal rock art the park is famous for.
One difference between this park and most others is that an entry pass has to be bought. You’re trusted to go and buy one once you enter, but there are plenty of rangers around who may ask to see it. Fair enough in itself, but what annoyed me is that I had to pay for seven days when I was only going to be there three. Although it wasn’t very expensive, at $35, it’s still a bit annoying to pay for more than you plan to use. But I suppose the positive side of it is that the money helps support projects aimed at Indigenous Peoples. They own the land and are heavily involved in managing the park. It borders Arnhem Land, which is totally given over to Aboriginal people. It’s a vast area that borders the coast and had I wanted to go there I would have needed a special permit, as would all non Aboriginals. There are a number of such areas around Australia, a positive attempt to enable Indigenous Peoples to regain their culture.

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Seen at the visitor centre. A sign of the times?

Once I’d set up camp I visited the Warradjan Aboriginal Centre, where I bought my pass then looked around the information displays. The focus was on local culture; about the six or seven different seasons Aboriginals recognise; various hunting and fishing artefacts; some displays telling the stories of how children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to mission schools; how the people had to rely on working on the stations in order to get food, although without pay. The history and effects of the destruction of Indigenous culture is a long and troubling one but the existence and operation of the national parks is at least a beginning in the search for a solution.

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Figures from a Dreamtime story.

Next day, as I rode to a different campsite, I went to see the Aboriginal rock art at Nourlangie. The park has created access by installing a walkway which took me up around the rocks and enabled a great view of the artwork. Fortunately they also have infoboards, essential for interpreting the drawings. It’s common to find new art drawn over old. Some of it relates to the Dreamtime stories. These are the Aboriginal creation stories; how the landscape was formed and how animals came to be. Others relate to activities such as hunting, dancing and other ceremonies. It’s not uncommon for them to be simply diagrams used to help the elders teach boys necessary skills. Some of them are as much as 20,000 years old, although most of them are clearly more recent. They tend to be located up in rocky areas, hidden from easy view. They were the best I’d seen anywhere, much better than those in Katherine Gorge, for example.

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Dancing figures. Rhythmic story telling.

Some of the drawings showed kangaroos but my next stop was all about crocodiles. Cahill Crossing is where the road into Arnhem Land goes over the East Alligator River. Was that name ironic or just a simple confusion by explorers between snappy jawed reptiles? Whatever, the river at this point is tidal and at high tide sea fish swim upriver and the salties wait upstream of the causeway and snap them up as they swim across. Clever!
I’d checked the tide times at the visitor centre and got there in plenty of time to watch the fun. The river was running downstream, across the causeway and there were plenty of people fishing. The best of them were the young Aboriginal lads who forsook expensive rods and reels and just used spools with line on. No bait is allowed so lures are used, to great effect. I’ve no idea what the fish are but by the time the tide had started to come over the causeway the lads had loaded about twenty into their car. Most of the other fishers released those they’d caught. Just downstream was a 4WD lying on its roof. By the time the tide was full all except a wheel was under water. Apocryphal tales abound about careless tourists who misjudge the strength of the water flow and end up as crocodile lunch. Was this one of their vehicles?

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Abandoned 4WD at Cahill Crossing. Did the driver become crocodile dinner?

The fishers abandoned their positions as the waters rose and eventually it was possible to see the crocs, over on the other side of the river, swimming around purposefully. It was plain to see they were catching fish although details were hard to see. It does seem as if the causeway slows the fish down, making the crocs’ task that much easier. Man and nature in perfect harmony then. It’s worth noting that fifty years ago crocs had been almost hunted to extinction, mainly for their skins. Making them a protected species has increased their numbers hugely, with 10,000 reckoned to live in Kakadu alone. Apart from a very few locations, swimming is not advised because of the risk. Finally, how do you tell the difference between a Freshie and a Saltie? A Freshie will swim away from you, a Saltie will swim towards you. But they’re not easy to see anyway. A stark warning indeed!

 

Deep and fast flowing at high tide.                                  Crocs await their lunch.

It was a ride of only a few hours from Kakadu to Darwin. Once I’d settled in I made a ‘to do’ list. At the top of it was to go to Alicross Motorcycles for new tyres. I’d called in to see owner Richard when I was in Darwin last time. He’s a friend of Dave’s and, like Dave, often helps travelers passing through, letting them use his workshop and so on. He fitted my new tyres while we chatted about bikes and traveling. I met Jason there too. He was having his racing BMW R100 checked on the dynomometer for power output. He uses it for drag racing, a bit of an unusual bike for that activity. It looked nice though.
Next task was to organise the shipping of Trixie the short distance across to Dili, in East Timor. Getting a bike across water is a vital step in any journey and can be fraught with difficulty. You hear tales of people turning up at a port, talking to crew members and getting their bike onto a local ‘onion boat’. I’m a realist and experience has taught me that the best way is to do it ‘official’ and use an agent. More expensive but always easier. Apart from anything else I planned to leave my bike in Darwin while I went back to the UK for a few weeks so I needed it all to be handled properly. Bolloré are based in Darwin and deal with ANL Shipping, a company that runs freighters to Dili, Singapore and back to Darwin. Just what I needed. I’d already chatted to Luke, at Bolloré, last time I was in the city and he’d assured me they could find a transportation frame for my bike and that they would arrange everything for me. So I called him and made the final arrangements. He couldn’t quote me a full price but was able to give me an approximation, which sounded OK.

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Coffee time visitor.

The customs office was just up the road from the hostel and I took the bike up there so they could check its details against those on the carnet. Next job was to sort through my panniers and separate all the gear I was planning to bring home with me. I won’t need my camping or cooking equipment in South East Asia as living is very cheap out there. It will just be an unnecessary burden. The rest would stay with the bike. In the morning I rode the bike to Bolloré, sorted everything out with Luke and waved goodbye to Trixie. See you in Dili!
A helpful truckie went out of his way to give me a lift to the bus stop on the main road, where I immediately got a bus back into town. Straight to customs to get my carnet stamped. And once that was all done I could relax.

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A nice display in the Botanic Gardens.

My idea of relaxing somehow seems to involve a lot of walking. From the hostel down to the botanic gardens – which were very good. Then along the seashore path to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. There was plenty of modern Aboriginal art to enjoy and puzzle over; some excellent natural history; and a film all about the effects of Cyclone Tracy. Apart from Japanese bombs, the cyclone was the most devastating event that Darwin had ever suffered. It pretty much wiped out the city, and on Christmas day to boot. There were 49 casualties, but fewer than the amount of damage caused might suggest. If there is an upside to such a disaster it’s that a rather dowdy city was turned into somewhere much more attractive; and that building regulations throughout Australia were changed to make buildings more cyclone proof. The scale of the disaster provided a wake up call to the whole of Australia and its ability to manage such disasters was stepped up considerably.

 

Modern Aboriginal art at MAGNT.

The piece of artwork above reminds me that the Maroons beat the Cockroaches, by a healthy margin, in the deciding game of the State of Origin competition. Making it, I believe, eleven wins out of twelve. It’s shame I missed the game.

So in general my last few days in Australia were spent enjoying Darwin in a very relaxed fashion, sampling coffee, food and beer. But eventually my last journey on Australian soil was completed on the airport bus before I flew out of one of the most remarkable countries I’d been to on my travels so far.

Topping Off The Tour. Part 1

Gregory Downs Roadhouse, QLD. Thursday 1st June 2017

The Northern Territory covers about one sixth of Australia’s land mass and the Top End is the northern part of it. I’d been to the Territory before of course, when I visited Alice Springs. On that occasion I’d only traveled south of Tenant Creek, this time I was north of it, where the Top End is considered to begin. But one question on my mind as I rode there was this: why did the Northern Territory never become a State? After all, there’s Western Australia, South Australia, so why not North Australia? The basic answer seems to be that there was nothing and nobody there – not of any consequence to the settlers in the south at any rate.
South Australia attempted to colonise the north during the late 19th century. It was slow going but Palmerston (later renamed Darwin,) and Port Darwin were established and some pastoralists began operations there. When I said ‘nobody there’, I meant Europeans. There were plenty of indigenous people but in the Australian mindset of that time, they didn’t count. There were problems with populating and administering the area, although the numbers did slowly grow. SA kept trying to create a northern colony in its own image but gave up in the end and sold the area to the new federal government in 1911.
One of the fundamental problems with the NT was that it didn’t have much to offer economically and is still reliant on the Federal Government for much of its income. At 30% it has the highest proportion of Aborigines out of all the states too. In effect it’s unable to be independent financially and to contribute to national funds. This situation is improving, especially with an increase in mining activity. There is a desire among many Territorians to apply for statehoood, although a 1998 referendum on the proposal failed. Current thinking is that it is likely to come about in 2018. It’s a complicated business though, so I’m not going to bore you too much but will use my usual cop out and provide you with a link for further reading if you wish to learn more.
http://tinyurl.com/jrak5pp.

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Northern Territory humour? Or a snappy snack?

Meanwhile, I hadn’t even got there. My journey from Mount Isa was going to include lots of dirt. A 1,400km journey, more than 1,000kms of that on gravel roads, as I rode from Queensland to the Territory. I would be camping and refueling at small roadhouses, with only two small towns to call in at for supplies. Probably my last ever taste of outback Australia. Gregory Downs was the first of these, where I watched the Maroons, Cockroaches and some frogs.
I know that sounds very odd so let me explain. Every year Queensland and New South Wales enjoy an interstate Rugby League challenge called the State of Origin. The Maroons (QLD) and the Cockroaches (NSW) battle it out across three games for nothing other than honour. Oh yes, not forgetting lots of TV money. It’s a big event and the first game happened to be on TV that evening. What does ‘state of origin’ mean? It refers to the location of the players’ first professional club, either QLD or NSW. No other states are involved, the competition simply reflecting the general sense of rivalry between the two states. Gregory Downs is in QLD and the bar was filled with a large crowd of road workers,billeted just across the way. It was very noisy but good natured, although things went quieter when QLD, usually the stronger team, lost by a big margin. It was good fun and I was cheering for the Maroons too. Fortunately they won the next game so the third game is a decider. It’s a real shame I’ll have left Aus by the time it’s played.

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Frogs ahoy! And they do’t look as if they’re just passing through either.

And the frogs? Well this was very peculiar. I had used the camp site toilet earlier and when I flushed it I saw a pair of frogs legs fighting the flow of water as it came out from under the rim of the bowl. I looked behind the cistern and found a pair of blinking eyes staring at me from a green face. Ah, mystery solved. A frog had wandered into the toilet. Not quite! I lifted up the cistern lid and found a whole family of them looking up at me, sitting on the various bits of plastic inside. I counted nine of them, who had clearly taken up residence. I stared at them, they stared back at me. In the end I put the lid back on and left them to it. Who am I to disrupt nature’s ways? When I left next morning I told the staff about them and their response was “Only nine? There’s usually more than that.” We had a laugh about it and then I hopped it.
Meanwhile there had been an increase in volume from my exhaust and I could feel a buzzy vibration coming from the bike. I had a good look around and discovered that a weld had broken on the exhaust header pipe. It was where a lug is welded on for the purpose of securing the heat shield. This was annoying but not a disaster and it explained the increase in noise and vibration. It also explained why my leg was getting hot! The escaping exhaust gas was warming me up nicely. So when I came to the small town of Burketown I located a young guy who had a TIG welder and asked him to try a repair. We couldn’t undo the rusted in heat shield bolts so he only managed to weld about a third of the crack. But he did manage to charge me $50 for the privilege. OK, I know that TIG welding is specialised but even so, it came as a bit of a shock!

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Cracked weld. Followed by an expensive partial repair

Feeling poorer, and a bit hard done by, I carried on to Hell’s Gate Roadhouse for another night in the tent. No frogs here but I chatted with Kate, who comes from London, about road conditions further along. (One of the guys working there comes from Gravesend, so it was almost like a reunion.) This part of QLD tends to be a bit wetter than most other parts. I was now in the tropics, where there is more rainfall and the creeks actually have water in them most of the time. She told me the latest news about Calvert Creek and the Robinson River, two crossings that I would need to take care at. The roadhouse isn’t quite the fount of all knowledge but they do gather useful information from other travellers as they pass through, and share it.
When I headed off along the track I actually came to five creeks, all with water in and with varying degrees of difficulty. Hang on, they’d only mentioned two! The dreaded Robinson River was by no means the worse. I managed to drop the bike in the sandy exit of one of them, with no damage done. I’d tried to ride up in 2nd gear instead of 1st and just didn’t have enough momentum.

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Lying low for a while. My first ‘off’ with this bike.

I stayed in the town of Borroloola that night and rang Hells Gate to give them an update on the creeks. It seemed right to pass back some information. The town has a high Aboriginal population so there are restrictions on the sale of alcohol. I fancied a beer so I walked up to the local restaurant, where I could get a drink with food, and enjoyed the best piece of battered Barramundi I’d eaten since arriving in Aus. It’s a delicious fish, always moist and tasty. Much better than cod. A couple of beers to wash it down too.
Parked next to me on the campsite was a very battered looking trailer, towed by an equally battered truck. I got into conversation with the elderly Kiwi who was with it and he told me quite an amazing story. As well as living in it, he uses his trailer as a kitchen too. He drives out to stations at shearing or mustering time and cooks meals for the hands. He was driving along one of the nearby tracks and was just crossing a narrow bridge when a road train came round the bend, going too fast and with no way of stopping. My Kiwi friend accelerated off the bridge, managed to swing his truck to one side but the trailer was squashed up against the bridge railing by the road train, half tilted over. Meanwhile the road train had just carried on as if nothing had happened. He was unhurt but his trailer was pretty smashed up. He has a satellite phone so he rang the police and they managed to stop the truck 200kms further along the road. The driver said he simply had no chance of stopping the truck. It was found to weigh 165 tonnes. The legal limit is 73 tonnes! The driver said his company forces him to run overweight. If he didn’t agree he’d be sacked, he said. How awful. Meanwhile the old fella had to arrange for a crane to come down to lift the trailer off the bridge railing and also had to get two tyres helicoptered in to replace the burst ones. That must have cost a powerful amount of money but the freight company will have to pay for it. The driver will be prosecuted as well.

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Don’t argue with a road train!

So with that cautionary tale at the forefront of my mind, I carried on, taking extra care at any bridges I came to. The road was getting steadily rougher though. Plenty of corrugations and stony creek crossings – the dry ones that is. At one point I stopped for a break and noticed something a little odd about the bike. The rear light lens was missing. What? Where on earth had that gone? At the same time I realised that the rear mudguard had fractured on both sides, right where the indicators are mounted. It was clear that the vibrations had been taking a toll. Later, when I was discussing the various faults with the factory, they refused to accept this damage as a warranty claim. Their point was that taking a bike off road was going to be risky. I was astonished by this attitude. My belief is that if you’re going to sell a bike aimed at off road riders then you should fit components robust enough to handle the work involved. I never had any problems of this kind with my Suzuki. This bike isn’t proving to be anything like as tough. So I’m not too happy with CCM at the moment.

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Please try harder on the next model CCM! More robust components are required.

I called in to have a look at the Southern Lost City. Skyscrapers dominated the landscape here, but built from sandstone rather than concrete and glass. Once upon a time they were part of the seabed but movement of the Earth  exposed the land they were part of. Erosion has done the rest. They reminded me of the Bungle Bungles, over in Western Australia, although their rock content is different. There are other examples of the same thing in this region.

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The Lost Southern City shows off its tower blocks.

I bush camped that night and discovered that I’d left my wash bag behind in Borroloola. Now that’s the kind of thing that is seriously annoying. A moment of forgetfulness leading to loads of hassle. But being on the road brings these fun filled moments.
I was gradually making my way north and west, towards the Stuart Highway, which is the road that runs between Adelaide and Darwin. Grace had told me about the hot springs up at Mataranka and had recommended Bitter Springs as the best one to visit. I camped in the nearby site and walked down there for a dip. The water was only lukewarm so I felt a bit disappointed, but what did strike me was how the vegetation had changed significantly over the last few days. Since leaving Mount Isa the scrub land had gone and been replaced by woodland. But here I was in tropical forest. Palm trees, giant ferns and fig trees. They all love the wet areas and the walk down to the spring revealed their dank habitat, among the wetlands. I was quite taken by the change from the random shapes of woodland trees to the almost geometric patterns these plants offered the eye. I’ve no idea why this should be. There must be a reason but I don’t know it.

Nature’s perfection.                                   A marked change in flora.

Camping next to me was Dan and Colleen, a friendly biker couple. Dan has a Honda Goldwing, with which he tows a trailer, although this time they were trying out their new caravan and the Grey Nomad lifestyle. Dan had brought me over a beer as soon as I’d pulled in and they invited me over for some dinner and good conversation. Being able to share a meal with friendly strangers is one of the delights of travelling in Aus.
Next day I made it to Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory and Australia’s northern front line and gateway to Asia. I was heading up there to stay with Dave for a few days. Dave is a terrific guy who offers hospitality to motorcycle travellers as they enter or leave Australia via the port. Darwin is probably the most common entry point for overlanders as there’s a regular freight service to East Timor and to Indonesia. I’d contacted Dave via the Horizons Unlimited website (horizonsunlimited.com) and he’d invited me to stay while I sorted out my Indonesian visa and organised the shipping of my bike. He’s a very well travelled man, having been to Europe and South America often. He has bikes there ready for him to fly in and ride. He’s a great fan of the Isle of Man TT and has been there several times, as well as to Northern Ireland to watch bike racing there. He’s a gregarious character and he had plenty of tales to tell. There were five other people there too: a Swiss couple, Thomas and Sylvie; another Swiss guy, Kevin; Joe, a Kiwi; and Elaine, a French woman who was staying at Dave’s long term. She had a van parked on the lawn, which she slept in. Apart from Elaine, they had all met up at a Horizons Unlimited meeting in Indonesia and had decided to share a container to get their bikes across from Dili to Darwin. The problem with coming in to Australia with a vehicle is that it has to go through quarantine and it’s impossible to know how long this will take. I’ve done it twice and have been fortunate both times in that my bikes were cleared in less than a week.

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Elanine, Sophie, Thomas, Kevin and Joe.

I had some jobs to do on the bike and Dave was happy to lend me the equipment I needed and to assist me as well. I sorted out some wiring, cleaned the bike up after its dirty experiences and made various adjustments to this and that. Dave has a big shed and I put it to good use. He decided I needed a Camel Toe, which in this case is a large foot to go on the bottom of my side stand. Perfect for stopping it sinking into the sand.
I went into the city (Dave lives about 20kms outside it) and found the Indonesian consulate. The process for getting a sixty day tourist visa was far easier than I had expected it to be, especially compared to my previous experience in Melbourne. They’d told me it would take over four weeks because they had to send my passport back to the UK for processing. That was obviously nonsense because the helpful guy in Darwin said it would be about four days. And that’s all it took in the end.

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One of Dave’s friends called round with this beautiful Panther.

My plan had always been to arrive in Darwin, sort out the visa and shipping, then tour the local area. I arrived in early June so had plenty of time on my hands. Getting the visa took a bit longer than it should have though because a three day weekend got in the way. Most states have a bank holiday for the Queen’s official birthday so I had to wait an extra day. I’m no royalist but it would be a handy excuse for another one in the UK. Meanwhile the others where getting the real run around with regard to releasing their bikes. Their container still hadn’t passed its quarantine inspection, let alone the bikes inside it. Problems with spiders I believe. I learned later that things moved quite quickly for them once the container was given the all clear and they had their bikes the next week. Their experience is a warning though. Things may not happen very quickly when taking a vehicle into Aus.

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Darwin’s Knowledge Tree. An Aboriginal meeting place.

Darwin itself is a nice city. It’s not large and the CBD is only a few blocks in length and width. It’s a nice place, with plenty of parks and gardens. None of the buildings are very old. Let’s be fair, neither is the city really. But it suffered almost total destruction when it was hit by Cyclone Tracey in 1974 and had to be rebuilt. It was originally called Palmerston but the name was changed in honour of Charles Darwin. There is now a suburb called Palmerston so the name has stuck around. It is a port so there’s plenty of shipping activity as well as marinas all around. There are several headlands so there’s plenty of seashore to enjoy. The winter weather is invariably sunny and warm, with little rain, so it’s a great place to walk around. It has a tropical climate so summers tend to be wet and often stormy. Cyclones are not all that uncommon.

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Tailfin of the Boeing B-52 bomber. A truly massive aircraft. Four engines on each wing!

Perhaps Darwin’s biggest reason for a special place in Australian history is that it became the country’s front line in WW2. On the 19th February 1942 around 188 Japanese aircraft bombed the harbour in a raid that equalled Pearl Harbour in terms of size and damage. In fact it was the same aircraft, from the same aircraft carriers, that carried it out. Many ships were sunk and some of the town centre buildings were destroyed, most notably the post office. The two raids killed at least 243 Australians and allies. Almost 400 were wounded. Twenty military aircraft were destroyed, eight ships at anchor in the harbour were sunk and most civil and military facilities in Darwin were destroyed. Fortunately all but essential civilian personnel had been evacuated because the threat had been present for some months. Even so, the city was not prepared militarily, giving the raiders an easy ride. The true record of events was suppressed throughout the war so as to avoid undermining morale, especially in the southern states. The city suffered a total of sixty four air raids over the next two years, although none were as devastating as the first one. It became a military base, both for American forces as well as Australian ones, and was the launch pad for the Allied invasion of South East Asia. It’s the 75th anniversary of this event so there was plenty of information on display. Lots more information here:

http://tinyurl.com/j3vfo5k

I visited the Aviation Museum and saw some great aircraft. Best of all was the absolutely huge Boeing B52 bomber. Too big to get a photo of the whole plane. FOUR engines on each wing! The F-111 was another fine aircraft on display. Sleek and purposeful.

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The beautiful F-111 bomber.

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One of the oil tunnels, built beneath the cliffs.

Having been to the visitor centre I took a stroll around the CBD, following the Heritage Walk. A few interesting buildings to look at, also another Knowledge Tree, this one still alive though. But the strangest place out of all of the sights was the Oil Tunnels. When the Japanese first bombed Darwin they either had prior knowledge or were simply lucky, because they hit several of the oil storage tanks just after they’d been filled up. The port was a naval base and the government needed to find a way of protecting the stored oil from the raiders. So a scheme to dig tunnels under the cliff was born. In retrospect it seems a rather crazy idea and at the time many people had doubts. But it went ahead and turned into one of those never ending jobs which just have to be seen through to the bitter end despite, or because of, the amount of money, time and effort already invested. The idea seemed simple. Dig tunnels into the cliff, line them with steel and then concrete, store oil in them. Sounds simple, but almost insurmountable problems arose. The rock from which the cliff is made is very loose and unstable so the actual mining task was extremely difficult. A series of wetter than usual summers meant that the already difficult drainage problems were almost insurmountable. Chief engineers were engaged and then replaced and by the time the tunnels were ready to actually serve their purpose, the war had finished anyway. The plan had been to store oil directly inside the concrete lined tunnel but constant water ingress defeated this idea. Two tunnels did get used by a commercial company post war, for storing jet fuel. But that didn’t last long because of water seepage. But they do make a unique tourist attraction and are a good example of lateral thinking.

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Water ingress, the reason why the idea didn’t work.

It was fascinating to walk through the one tunnel that was open for visiting. Seeing the water running down the walls made it plain how difficult the task was. But at 172 metres long and 4 metres in diameter it certainly would have held plenty and easily protected it from Japanese air raids.
Darwin Waterfront has recently been developed for leisure, with a water park for swimmers and a nice eating area around Stokes Hill Wharf. There’s a museum there, dedicated to the events of WW2 and the Flying Doctor service. It was Sunday and they’d closed by the time I arrived, so I settled for sitting in the sun drinking coffee. There were more sites to visit in the city but I was going to leave those until I returned. But I did walk up through the Bicentennial Park, where there’s a lookout over the harbour and various memorials relating to Darwin’s history.
After a few more days, some of that time spent socialising with Dave and his friends, I got my passport back from the consulate and headed out of Darwin to explore the Top End’s beauty spots.

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Dave’s patio area. We ate and socialised out there.

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.

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.

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.