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.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Greendale Farm, near Forbes, NSW. Friday 14th April 2017.

If you’ve been following my travels you may remember that I met a Danish biker named Michael, and his Honda Africa Twin, down in Kyrgyzstan. We said we’d try to meet again and, after two and a half years, we managed to make it happen. It took a bit of doing and was mostly thanks to a guy named Ben, who has a farm near Forbes, in north western NSW. He and Michael had ‘met’ on Facebook, Ben had invited him to visit, Michael had told him about me and he’d invited me too. Michael had arrived in Aus a month or so before, had holidayed with his mother and was now staying with a friend in the Blue Mountains. My plan was to head north to Broken Hill, NSW, but Ben was near enough to both our routes to make a diversion to his farm worthwhile.
I was happy to leave Melbourne the easy way, via the motorway. I finished that first day on a campsite at Bruthan, with just over 300kms under our wheels. Trixie was running well and seemed to like southern air. But how would she like mountain roads? A run up through the Victorian Alps was our next challenge and she liked it very much. I felt very confident on the twisties and the bike handles very well indeed. A bit too well in some ways. On the really sharp bends I was scraping the bottoms of my soft panniers on the road and wore holes in them. They were clearly mounted too low. ‘Lift and patch’ seemed to be the order of the day.

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So peaceful that the warden didn’t bother to disturb me for the camping fee.

Another night in a campsite, then a pleasant ride through gentle hills and farmland saw me reach Grenfell, where I met Michael. It was great to see him again after all this time. He’d travelled through Central Asia, China and most of South East Asia since I last saw him. He’d also met Hera in Laos, the Dutch cyclist who I’d met in Kazahkstan and who I’d gone to Kyrgyzstan to meet again. It’s because of her I know Michael in the first place. Michael has plenty of information, hints and tips to share with me about SE Asia. His experiences will be a very useful guide to me when I go there.

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Nice to see you again Michael.

We rode out to Ben’s farm and found ourselves in the company of a very lovely man. Warm and hospitable, Ben is widely traveled and had many tales to tell us. He looks about the same age as me, although I discovered later that he’s in his early seventies. Now that gives me confidence for the longer term because Ben still jets off to other continents and goes exploring by bike. He was in South America recently and regularly travels to Canada and Ireland, where he has bikes waiting for him. He no longer farms his land, but leases it out to a neighbour, although he still gets involved in the work, as we found out. So the three of us chatted and swapped stories, enjoying the camaraderie that bikers always seem to have.

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Nicest part of the day, especially for chatting with a beer in hand.

His family have farmed this land for a very long time and that’s the reason why Ben has several very fascinating sheds. A shed is just a shed, no? Well yes, but it very much depends on what’s in it. Ben never seems to throw anything away with regard to vehicles. Not only most of his old motorbikes but also several 1930s and 40s tractors, including a very odd looking twin cylinder diesel two stroke. It seems that every Ute the farm ever used is also in one of the sheds, along with an old Commer truck. “You’ve got a small fortune sitting here,” I said to Ben. “If you’re ever short of cash this lot could fund years more traveling.” He agreed but reminded me that his nephew was keen to restore several of them, especially the 1950s De Soto.

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A very ancient old tractor.

We’d already met Rob and his family the previous evening, when we went round for dinner. He’s a senior constable in the local police, which obviously keeps him busy. But he also owns a block of land, which he farms and will eventually build a house on. He’s a typical Aussie, with lot’s of ambition and energy.
Have you ever been traveling through the countryside, seen smoke on the horizon then as you got closer realised a farmer was burning stubble? Well that’s what the three of us went out to do one morning. And what a flaming good time we had! Ben and Michael were in a small tractor-like quad, setting things alight, while I stood by in Ben’s Ute towing the water bowser. The aim was to burn the stubble but keep the flames within the field. We failed, and spent most of the time chasing around putting out the fires we’d started. Ben had to go back a couple of times to refill the bowser while Michael and I beat at the flames with branches. All had seemed well when we started but the wind kept changing direction blowing the flames across the boundaries. To a casual observer we must have looked like arsonists on a bonus scheme, but Ben knew what he was about and it was all done properly in the end. Ben’s neighbour Paul could now plough and plant the huge fields, an operation that involves some big machinery that is all achieved by a GPS guided, computer operated tractor. Things have certainly moved on from when I used to hoe fields of mangold wurzels as a teenager.

Setting the field alight.                                  Maybe a bit too much!

What with the stubble burning, chats with Ben and also with his neighbour, I’d gained a better understanding of rural life in these parts. It was strange to hear that the fields we’d been burning had been completely submerged two months ago after some extremely wet weather. I couldn’t help but be amazed at the level of investment that must be involved in running these huge farms. Paul has several huge grain silos, which are the largest privately owned silos in NSW. The tractor and associated machinery is also a huge investment. And yet extremes of weather could render that money wasted, or at least make the loans much more of a burden than they might have been. Fortunately his sheep manage to largely look after themselves.

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Those silos contain very many loaves of bread. Or maybe pints of beer.

Michael tore himself away from our fun filled farming lifestyle and headed back to the Blue Mountains. And after another day of stubble burning, I left too. Ben helped me plan a cross country route to Broken Hill, 800kms away. There were some gravel roads to ride and I was wondering how Trixie would be on her first foray onto the dirt. Come to that, how would I be? The last dirt road I’d been on, six months earlier, had cost me my luggage and a very scorched Doris. It had been a terrific visit to Greendale Farm. Meeting Ben had been a privilege but the time to go always comes. Thanks for the terrific hospitality Ben. I hope to see you out on the road somewhere.

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The Three Amigos. Ben with Honda CX500; Michael with Honda Africa Twin; me with              CCM GP450

Ben’s pets. The possum that lives in a stove.                   And the dog that lives in a boot.

The two day ride to Broken Hill once again told me some tales about rural NSW. Mostly a sad tale of towns that seem to be dying. Empty shop windows with ‘For Lease’ signs prominently displayed. Buildings wanting for a lick of paint. I didn’t actually see any tumble weeds but half expected to. It seems to reflect a trend of people moving away from the land caused by, as much as anything else, mechanisation and ownership of more stations by fewer people. Inevitable, probably, but still sad to see. I’d passed through several ghost towns on my travels but it was strange to see it happening almost before my eyes.

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Another business closes.

But on the plus side, Trixie was handling the dirt with aplomb, and so was I. I shouldn’t really be surprised as that’s what she was designed for, and riding a bike you feel confident on improves your own riding skills too. So we had fun. Warm weather; a night camping in the bush; billions of stars to gaze at; easy riding and a pleasant feeling. All previous doubts about whether or not I’d enjoy the traveling again disappeared, roughly half way along a dirt road which had a surface worn out enough to get me and Trixie working at it a bit. I suddenly thought “I’m really enjoying this! The bike’s good and so am I.” I had to smile at a conversation I had with the old fella who owned a servo where I refueled. I commented on the road and he said “Yes, it needs regrading but they can’t do it without water and we haven’t had any rain since November.” I said nothing but smiled at the thought that only 400kms south they’d had fields that were drowning.

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When they say not to use a road, they mean it!

When I’d been in Broken Hill Base hospital last August, where they’d fixed up my broken hand, I’d realised that the town had a fair bit to offer the tourist, which was why I’d decided to come back. It was on my route north anyway. The cheapest bed I’d found was in a small hotel with self catering facilities. I got booked in, settled my self into the room and made some plans for next morning. When I got up it had started raining. And didn’t stop until lunchtime. A visit to the tourist office showed there was quite a lot to see in and around the town so, clutching my Heritage Trail leaflet, I got walking. The first thing I noticed is that all the street names relate to mining, such as Sulphide Street, Chloride Street and Bromide Street. Oddly appropriate, I thought.

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You can tell it’s a mining town.

First and foremost Broken Hill is a mining town. It’s known as Silver City and it grew out of the discovery of silver, lead and, later on, zinc. These days it’s a cultural centre as well, with many art galleries and similar, but mining still goes on and keeps the town busy and prosperous. Have you ever heard of BHP Billiton, one of the world’s biggest mining and resource companies? The BHP part of the name stands for Broken Hill Proprietary Co Ltd. In 1885 seven friends, who worked on a local cattle station, formed the company to mine the newly discovered ore in the Broken Hills, so named because of their irregular shape and part of the Barrier Ranges. Three years later the town itself was proclaimed a municipality and BHP continued mining there until the late 1930s, later growing its interests into coal, steel and shipbuilding. Billiton was a mining company which originated in the Dutch East Indies in the 19th century, and the two combined in 2001. The most recent news about the company is that it’s dropping the Billiton part of its name, having felt the need to “reconnect with its community” and re-identify as an Aussie company. But there’s no sign of it returning to its roots just yet.

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Pretty minerals.

A visit to the Geology Centre helped me to understand how it all came to be there and the nature of what was dug up. Lead and zinc only exist inside other minerals and obtaining them led to the discovery of many new minerals, often in crystallite form. The display of crystals is marvellous and the beauty of their form and colour is striking. Many of them were named in recognition of their finder. Oddly though, the valuable ore is invariably the dullest of all. So in this case you could say that all that glisters isn’t gold.

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One of the nicest buildings in Broken Hill, the Trades Hall.

There’s several stages of history on show in the town’s heritage buildings, a kind of tin roof display of prospects and prosperity. It’s invariably the big buildings which attract the attention, the grand statements of success, if you like. There’s a fair number of those, including the old post office, the huge Palace Hotel and the Trades Hall, which has a very important story to tell. A bit more on that later. Smaller buildings included the premises of the local newspaper, the Barrier Daily Truth. Started in 1908 it was the world’s first English language newspaper to be owned by a labour organisation, the mining trades unions in this case. It is still going and still has the same type of ownership. Its rival, the Barrier Miner, was funded by the mining companies but closed in 1954. That’s one battle the unions won!

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Another important building.

The Trades Hall is a very grand looking building and was the centre of activity of the mining unions, providing them with office space, education facilities, technical libraries, meeting rooms etc. It was also the hub which supported the two miners’ strikes of 1892 and 1909. Working conditions in these huge mines were dreadful and the unions, as is their role, were always trying to improve them. Illness – such as lead poisoning – and death were all too common. Although the strikers were forced back to work on both occasions, the strikes helped to push forward many improvements. An all too common sight for the townsfolk was to see a black flag flying above the Trades Hall. This meant that a miner had died and people would gather outside to get news of the tragedy. The frequency of this was brought home to me when I walked up to the Miners’ Memorial, an iconic building which sits on top of the Line of Lode.

Line of Lode Miners Memorial. Outside and inside.

This memorial lists the names of all those killed in mining accidents, the year of their death and the cause. I counted over twenty five deaths per year, some for health reasons (heart attacks for example) but mostly from accidents. Electrocution; falls; cave-ins; tunnel collapses; and many others. Even as late as 1989 there were over ten deaths per year. Over eight hundred deaths since the start of mining in 1883. It’s no wonder the unions wanted better conditions for their members.

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An example of how workers used to die.

A much brighter visit was to the town that preceded Broken Hill as a mining centre, Silverton, 25kms away. I’m sure you can guess what they were digging for out there. Often thought of as a ghost town, Silverton still has a population of over sixty people, some of them artists, but most of them involved in the heritage business. The town was founded around the same time as Broken Hill and grew to around 3,000 people, but was slowly overshadowed by its more productive neighbour and eventually fell into decline. Many of the buildings were transported to Broken Hill, solving some of the problems associated with the shortage of building materials.

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Silverton Hotel, plus mob of Harleys.

I had a look at those that were left, including the museums housed in the former gaol and schoolhouse. The hotel still operates and seems to be a popular weekend ride-out destination, judging by the the crowd of Harley Davidson riders I saw there. One of the nicest places was the studio of artist Justin Cowley, or Cowz, as he signs himself. I really liked his style and subject matter, capturing the essence of outback life and the depth of feeling people have for it. I liked it so much I even bought a couple of prints, something I’ve never done on this journey so far. A more famous Aussie artist also has a studio in the town, John Dynon. Unlike Justin, he was at work there but I wasn’t so taken with his painting. It lacked the subtlety of Justin’s, I thought.

Two examples of Justin Cowley’s work. I liked them very much.

But easily the best place in Silverton was a museum set up by British immigrant Adrian Bennett, from Barnsley, solely dedicated to the film Mad Max Two. You could say the man matches the film, but in the nicest way. His obsession began back at home in 1982 when he went with some friends to see Mad Max 1 & 2. He emerged a changed man. He was totally absorbed by the film and researched as much information about it as he could – with no internet to help him. He and his family immigrated to Adelaide in 2006 and once his visa status was secure he bought a property in Silverton, then built the museum on spare land in 2009. He began to collect items as soon as he reached these shores but ramped up the effort when he got to Silverton.

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No prizes for guessing what this building is all about.

So why there? Because most of the film was shot just outside the town, on the road to Mundi Mundi, and many people from Broken Hill were involved in its making, either as extras or on the production side. Adrian was puzzled as to why the area had pretty much ignored the biggest grossing Aussie film made to date, but he set about begging, borrowing or buying as many artifacts as he could to display in his museum. He managed to dig up many of them from the film location where they’d simply been bulldozed into the ground. Once they heard about the project the people of Broken Hill dug around in their attics and sheds and sold, donated or loaned items to Adrian and the museum. He was given an original script too. He has several of the vehicles used in the film, including the original gyrocopter, although he has built some replicas himself. He has hundreds of photos of the action, many of them from Max Alpin, the head stuntman. Mel Gibson’s sister came to visit recently and was very impressed. No sign of Mel himself though. So far. An amazing place, with a slightly barmy feel to it. I loved it! (http://silverton.org.au/mad-max-museum/)  Very well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area.

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Vehicles from the film.

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Adrian, who turned his dream into reality.

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Tribute to famous Aussie actor Max Phipps, who played The Toadie.

Silverton was one of the stops on the tramway which linked Broken Hill with the railway that went down into South Australia. The town petitioned the NSW government to build a line but they refused. So they built their own private line. It’s referred to as a tramway because it was privately run. It was hugely profitable. It was also involved in the only enemy action of WW1 which took place on Australian soil. Two cameleers, one Turkish the other Pakistani, felt strongly enough about events in Turkey to arm themselves and fire upon a train of open wagons packed with townsfolk heading on a day trip. Several were killed before the attackers were also shot and killed. This story, along with others, is told in the Sulphide Street Railway Museum, where I spent an hour or so wandering happily around their collection of old locos, carriages and wagons. Visitors are allowed to wander through the rolling stock and get up into the cabs of the locos as much as they liked. A refreshing change from most places.

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World War One comes to Broken Hill.

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Streamlined W24 type locomotive, Malcolm Moore. It covered over 200,000 miles in its ten year service life.

My last visit before leaving for pastures new was to the Living Desert Sculpture Park. The idea for this fascinating place came from a chance conversation with the mayor at the opening of an art exhibition. “Not enough sculptures” was one artist’s comment and before too long funding had been found to create this sculpture park. Many local businesses provided support and sandstone boulders were moved to the chosen site, where the leader of the symposium of sculptors felt was the right place spiritually . It’s on the top of a hill, which now lies within the Living Desert Reserve. Many of the sculptors came from Europe and the Middle East and have created some amazing artwork. I’ll let the pictures tell the story.
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‘Motherhood’, by Badri Salushia from Tblisi, Georgia.

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‘Horse’ by Jumber Jikiya from Rustiva, Georgia.

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A selection of some of the others.

It was time to leave this fascinating town. I was very glad indeed that I’d returned, but was also regretting my short visit. There is a huge amount to see in and around Broken Hill, gateway to the outback, but I had to move on. I read that today’s value of all the minerals taken from Broken Hill would be around $300 billion. I took was the road north.

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Seen outside the station. Time to go!

Getting Back In The Groove

Sydney, Australia. 22nd March 2017

I can never quite get used to how a twenty four flight time becomes thirty six hours on the clock. But that’s what you get for chasing the sun as you head east. With luggage collected I found the correct courtesy bus and headed into the centre of Sydney. I’d booked a hostel at Pott’s Point and part of the deal was the free bus ride. I had managed to get some sleep on each of the two planes but it’s never enough really. So rather like one of those toys you see in a certain advert for batteries, I kept going for a fair while, walking, drinking coffee and shopping, but eventually I wound down and expired. An early night was needed.
I’d come to Sydney partly as a gentle re-introduction into the travelling way of life and partly to catch up with a couple of friends I’d first met on the road. The fact that they both happen to be very nice young women had no bearing on the matter. You do believe me, don’t you.
I met up with Kym in a pub near the hostel for beer, food and a nice catch up on each other’s news. She works for a graduate recruitment company and has been keeping very busy because their business is expanding. It’s great news that they’ll sponsor her work visa when the time comes. The other good news is that we may get to meet again before I leave Australia, maybe in Darwin.

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Sydney opera house and a rather nice fountain.

I met Jo a few days later, after her day’s work had finished at the opera house. She’s with a company that takes photos of visitors then sells them to them as keepsakes. A permanent job and not commission based either, so she’s happy. We tried the beer in a couple of pubs before eating at a third one. Her visa news is not so good but she hopes that will improve with time. She’s sharing a house with several other people and as they have spare room she invited me to come and stay before I left. Well, like a kid offered helping of jelly and ice cream, I jumped at the chance. I’d go there in a few days but meanwhile I enjoyed a pleasant day on one of Sydney’s northern beaches, getting pink all over, one side at a time. But generally I was just relaxing and enjoying the city.
After a few days I moved out to the suburb of Eastwood and found her house. This area is VERY Asian and it was most obvious in the shopping area where almost all the shops and markets were Chinese, Korean, Japanese etc., although all the standard foods and goods were available too. It gave a great flavour to the place. It was like getting Oriental spices with your normal food. Most of the houses are 1920-30s, so it’s a well established suburb.

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Jo and Jamie.

We went to a quiz night one evening. We met Jo’s housemate Alex and his boyfriend Chris at the pub, and Jo’s boyfriend Jamie arrived too. The quiz was excellent, especially as we came first, by one point. I was welcomed because I knew more of the old songs on the music sections.But there was a twist at the end. There was one final question were we could gamble some of our points on a correct answer. Getting it wrong meant you lost the points you’d gambled. You didn’t have to gamble at all but not doing so meant that others could get past you. The result was that we slipped to second place and won a beer voucher for $20. A successful night’s work.
One afternoon Jo and I met for food in the city after she’d finished work, then went off to where Jamie was playing ice hockey. I’d never watched this game before so was looking forward to it. It certainly lived up to its reputation, including two opposing players fighting on the ice. That was funny to watch. Imagine two Weebils trying to wrestle and you’ll have some idea of what it’s like. There’s simply too many layers of protection for any damage to be done. The game is fast and furious and I loved the way they bounce the puck off the edge of the rink the way a snooker player uses the cushions on the table. At the end of the three fifteen minute periods Jamie’s team had won 4-3. Great fun.

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You meet the strangest people at ice rinks.

But the time came to leave. As with Kym, there was a good chance I’d see Jo again, maybe in Darwin too. Something to look forward to.
I had considered getting a plane to Melbourne but had also looked at a cheaper alternative, an overnight coach. That would save the airport transfer costs and also save on a hostel bed too. But I luckily discovered that I could get a train instead. A little cheaper than the coach, a couple of hours quicker and fewer stops. Plus the advantage of a buffet car too. A no brainer really.
The ten days in Sydney had been fun, playing at being a tourist and meeting old friends. The city had lost none of its ability to charm and delight. But the ship which contained my bike was getting ever closer to Melbourne and I needed to do the same.

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Early morning ballooning over Melbourne.

Once settled in Melbourne I rang Bikes Abroad, the agent who would receive my bike from Motofreight. Ivan confirmed the ship had docked and the container had reached them. He promised to keep me up to date with progress. And on Tuesday he did just that but was the bearer of potentially bad news. Because of a backlog of inspections, Australian Quarantine Inspection Service were running behind and it could be next week before my bike was checked. That was not good news! I’d hoped to be on my way north by then. But Ivan promised to plead on my behalf to see if he could get it done sooner. He would tell AQIS that I was waiting for the bike and hoped that would appeal to their better nature and that they’d squeeze my inspection in. Fingers crossed.
Meanwhile I had a date with two Davids. One of my Charlton Athletic supporting friends was on a cruise holiday and he and his wife would be in Melbourne on the Monday. The other David, a native Melburnian, had worked in London with David and was also a Charlton supporter, but he and his family had moved back to Australia about nine years ago. I’d met up with Dave, Marti and their kids a year ago when I first visited Melbourne. I suggested we all get together.

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Old friends reunited.

Dave’s kids were on Easter holiday and we all had a great day in and around the city, including a visit to Captain Cook’s Cottage.His family had sold it to Melbourne city in the 1930s, being a bit short of cash during the depression. But it was only half of the original building because some of it had been demolished to make way for road widening, sometime in the 1920s. We all had a great day and I was delighted to see the two Davids enjoying each others company once more.

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Captain Cook’s cottage – or what’s left of it.

On Thursday I got the phone call I’d been hoping for. My bike had been inspected that morning and had passed. That saying about a dog with two tails couldn’t have been more apt. I made arrangements to collect it on Friday from their warehouse. The other bike related job was to get a road permit and compulsory third party insurance from Victoria Roads Dept. That was easy enough. Present my registration document, my visa and then pay some money. Job done. I was good to go.
On Friday I caught a train, a bus and then walked to the premises. Once I’d signed a form I was accompanied to the warehouse and there was Trixie, sitting waiting for me. She was in very good company too. A Vincent Rapide, Norton Commando and a brace of old Triumphs had also been in the container with her. But perhaps the rarest and most interesting bike was a Gnome et Rhone, with a horizontally opposed twin cylinder engine (similar to a BMW twin). I had never heard of this make but some research showed it to have been made in France, between the wars. The factory had originally made WWI aero engines and in a double case of ‘swords to ploughshares’, this bike was actually an ABC model being made under licence in France. ABC motorcycles grew out of the Sopwith aero company.

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A very lovely Vincent Rapide.

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A very rare Gnome et Rhone.

Once I’d reattached all the panniers she started on the button. Not bad after an eight week lay off. But the good feeling didn’t last for long as I ran out of fuel on the way to the petrol station and had to walk the last 500 metres with my spare can. With that hiccup sorted out I rode into the city and parked Trixie on the pavement outside my hostel. On the pavement? Yes. Victoria is the one state in Aus that has the good sense to allow this. Other states and countries please take note!

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Say hello to Trixie, plus luggage!

I was happy to be able to meet more friends while in Melbourne. I took Bernard and Mary to lunch, something I’d promised to do to say “Thank You” for taking care of me last year. My hasty departure had prevented that happening before. I met Doug Mullet for coffee. Doug and I had enjoyed a nice ride along the Great Ocean Road last year. I met Colleen, a friend of Phil and Trish from Brisbane. Colleen’s niece was the lead female role in The Book of Mormon, so she was in Melbourne to see it. It’s fabulous fun. See it if you can. And I met my sister-in-law for coffee. She’s on holiday with her kids. Phew, what a busy social life I have.
Departure day was Tuesday and I was ready to hit the road. I mentioned in my last blog post that I was feeling nervous about starting off again. Doubts about whether I’d still enjoy the travelling; how the new bike would be; would I now miss home having spent five months back there. My sojourn in Sydney and Melbourne had been a gentle glide into the travelling frame of mind. Already I wasn’t missing home (sorry family and Jan!) and with my new bike loaded with my old luggage it was time to test the waters.

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Very nice racing Triumph.

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And this Norton Commando is pretty good too.