Since the last blog we’ve notched up 7,000 Kms and crossed the Tropic of Capricorn – not something you do every day – and we feel like we’ve experienced some of the ‘real Australia’. It has certainly taken us through some fantastic scenery, introduced us to some interesting characters and tested our good old English reserve around being hot and sweaty – ‘it’s getting hot in here’ as an American rapper with the interesting name of Nelly recounted a few years ago.
A long and winding road
Outback roads are quite something (comes with the territory) and this part of the trip has been, I would suggest, our real adventure – even if we don’t leave the main highways and hit the dirt roads at all (maybe another time?!) A fair few people had been quick to point out how monotonous they thought we’d find it for mile after mile, but not so. For most of the time, it’s actually really relaxing. We were never looking to break the land-speed record and as long as you keep concentrating and aware of any rare traffic, even rarer bends in the road or wildlife you might encounter, then no worries. The scenery is so dramatic (as I’ve said before) and changes so completely at times that it’s like travelling through several countries in one day. Mind you, it’s not always for the faint hearted:
- Road trains are impressive – we get excited every time we see one – but they can also be very intimidating. They rarely change speed and when you see one approaching in the rear-view mirror you are constantly working out whether to speed up or slow down and looking for options to enable it to pass! On a particularly narrow section of road it’s even worse as half of your vehicle has to leave the tarmac bit and go on the loose gravel. The road trains – having 3 or 4 waggons behind them – can also get a bit of a wobble on (think crazy caravan wobbles and then multiply it) and you DO NOT want to be beside a road train when it’s got a wobble on. Some of the developmental highways are tarmac’d but some sections are only single carriageway so that really adds to the fun/tension and it’s a bit like playing ‘chicken’ when you advance towards the crest of a hill and can’t actually see whether there’s anything about to confront you head on from the other side!
- Great big wide open spaces we love, but they can be a challenge when there’s a feisty side wind with nothing stopping it. Makes you concentrate I can tell you especially when a road train passes too. It also makes for very interesting hair when you have the windows down – think Flock of Seagulls from the 80’s!
- Sharing driving is vital in the outback to enable the driver to have a rest – as are rest stops if only for a short time. Luckily we both like the driving and love having the windows down (even at 40 degrees!) as you experience it all more – the heat, the smells (good and bad) and the sounds. Bit like being back on the motorbikes really.
- Fuel stops becoming further and further apart so never letting the tank get below half way has been our absolute rule. Fuel gets particularly expensive too in the outback (not surprisingly) with the record I think being $1.99/litre compared to $1.13 in Adelaide. Mind you, you pay it willingly when you consider the alternative.
- Bush fires. You begin to realise how small and how completely in the hands of mother nature you are in this country. One of the things that has bought it home in various ways is evidence of bush fires. We’ve seen some sites where, clearly some time ago, a bush fire has swept through miles of bush leaving charred trees and burnt soil only to now see vivid green growth coming through like the proverbial phoenix. Then you see more recent examples where new life has not yet been able to push through and some even have piles of ash which are still smouldering and giving off smoke. And then, like on our approach to Mount Isa, you have an actual bush fire on the go. Such large areas clearly mean that the firemen have to concentrate effort on areas that, if left, will cause more damage – e.g. to buildings or to roads – and leave the rest to run its course. There’s lots of preventative work in evidence too – the creation of fire breaks between areas of bush and down the sides of roads – and this will no doubt help efforts when the worst case actually happens. Quite a daunting sight to see smoke on the horizon since, as they say, there’s no smoke without fire…
- Termite hills. Now these have been a constant talking point as they are everywhere. Varying sizes and shapes, the smaller ones look like little people sitting in the bush and the large ones mean you look really carefully as it’s unclear whether it’s livestock or not. Quite amusing to see are the little people sized ones which travellers have stopped and put clothes on to! Some have very interesting outfits! Mind you, you can just imagine the poor old termites waking up in the morning… “Mum! Mum! Someone’s put their pants on our hill again. Not again, come on kids, let’s start up again somewhere. Bloody humans…”
I’m going out and I may be some time…
A word of appreciation and thanks is due, I would suggest, for the brave (or crazy) pioneers that carved their way through the outback, established routes that still exist today and who, therefore, have made our travels possible. A little bit of information to whet your appetite (thanks to the very able research of historian Timmo).
First up Mr Stuart. The Stuart Highway was established around 1861 and runs from Adelaide in the South to Darwin in the North (approximately 3,100 kms in length). John McDouall Stuart (1815-1869) was a Scottish surveyor who picked up the baton and took the commission of £2,000 from the South Australian government to link a telegraph service from bottom to top. Nearly one year later, after illness, scurvy and attacks by boomerang wielding Aborigines, he arrived at Chambers Bay in Darwin to meet the sea. I think I’d have wanted more than £2K for that job, but he is famed for his tenacity and strong constitution and I doubt he would have done it if the money wasn’t about right for the time being a Scot and all that.
The second main route through the centre is the equally impressive feat of Messrs Burke & Wills running from Melbourne in the South to the northern Gulf Coast (well, nearly…) In 1860, Robert Burke and William Wills left with 20 men, 18 camels and 20 tonnes of provisions. This was really heavy handed and chaos ruled for the whole expedition. They fell out all the time and actually never did find the sea, giving up just 70km short of the Gulf at Normanton (the town which was actually the inspiration for A Town Like Alice). They then returned from their ‘rush to the Gulf’ but had to eat their horses and camels to keep going. They finally reached their ‘base camp’ at Cooper Creek to find that their team that had been waiting for them there had broken camp that morning! Neither Burke or Wills made it back all the way to Melbourne but the Burke & Wills route (for the most part the Burke Development Road) is firmly etched in the country’s history.
Next up a sorry tale about Mr Gibson. In 1874 Messrs Gibson and Giles were out exploring Western Australia (because it was there) when Gibson’s horse sadly died. Mr Giles gave Gibson his horse with the instruction to retrace their steps 120 miles to Fort McKeller. Unfortunately, old Gibbo got a bit lost and was never seen again – the area he was lost in is now called the Gibson Desert. Mr Giles, now without buddy or horse somehow managed to find his way out (but only after eating a baby Wallaby raw – skin and all) and continued his explorations. He ‘found’ Uluru but by the time he got to Adelaide to register it, someone else had beaten him to it and had already named it Ayres Rock.
Well, now you know.
As towns become non-existent in the outback, the life savers for travellers, truckers, workers and locals are the Roadhouses and we had the pleasure of staying in several on our way North. Varied in their facilities and standards, some are like a little oasis in the desert and others are a little more challenging. Most have a pool of sorts which is very welcome at the end of a long, hot drive, all have a bar with plenty of cold ones to sample (most important) and all have facilities for showering and going to the loo. Happy days.
However, a couple of interesting loo experiences to tell you about (don’t worry I’m not about to describe bowel movements). The first was a very surprising encounter when flushing the loo after I had done my business. I don’t know who was more surprised, me or the frog that emerged from under the rim with the flushing water, had a swim around and then shot back up into the rim. The only way I can describe it is by recounting a time when Tim and I had stopped at a larger camp site in Alice Springs with a pool and flume, and, having beaten back the local kids, went for a go ourselves. First time down was quite a sedate affair for me but then I was reliably informed that it was better if you laid down (thanks are due to Tim’s Hannah for that advice I understand- thanks Hannah!) So, second time, I can only say that if I’d been shot out of a torpedo tube, I wouldn’t have hit the water any faster. I tell you I was skimming the surface like a flat pebble – Tim counted at least 4 (quite proud I must say) but the whole experience left the rest of the campers in awe (well, I think it was awe) and I couldn’t stop laughing. We called it a day after that and left it to the kids. Anyway, the frog experience seemed quite similar, that’s all I’m saying. I hope he had as much fun.
Second was a less amusing encounter suffice to say that it involved a whole toilet room full of cockroaches. There must have been a handbag in the middle of the room (actually I think it was a drain) as they were definitely all dancing around it. I’d normally join in as you know but I hadn’t had sufficient to drink, so I decided I could have a quick swill in our sink rather than a shower and do other things elsewhere. Not a huge fan of cockroaches – especially the one that attached itself to me as I was about to enter the motorhome. I did what can only be described as a frantic quickstep with triple toe-loop until it unlatched itself. Almost as unwelcome as the locust that flew in the window and tried to hitch a lift on my shoulder whilst we were driving along the road – how we didn’t crash I’ll never know. But that’s another story.
Roadhouses are also victim to power cuts and only have bore water/dam water that is less than drinkable, but do you know, we’ve had some of the best nights staying there because the people have been QUALITY. Really lovely, genuine people from all walks of life just enjoying a bit of banter. Priceless. One such encounter involved a group of locals and workers deciding that they were going to work their way through the bar shelves. The sight of big, dusty, burly road workers and stockmen drinking bright coloured alcopops was hilarious and they loved the fact that we found it so and encouraged us to join in. How could we refuse?? Never afraid of exchanging their views frankly, there were also some good discussions but also lots of laughs. We were even treated to a chorus or two by the singing stockman on his guitar. It was like being in the wild west – especially when free-roaming cattle came up to the bar area to listen too!
Burke and Wills Roadhouse
As of the aforementioned explorers from the 1800s, this one is worth a mention for the great hosts, Mark and Jay, the really good steak (not surprising in cattle country) and the genuine hospitality.
‘Adventure before dementia’ was Mark’s sound advice and could well become our new mantra. On hearing my sad plight about not having seen a Skippy in the wild (except flattened by the road side) they duly packed us into their truck, complete with a bucket of cold ones, and took us off to explore the off-the-beaten-track areas and, yes, there were Roos a plenty. Couldn’t get about for them! So generous with their time and presented us with an amazing sunset to boot. Fantastic.
I had been coming up with a new script for Skippy the Bush Kangaroo to re-work it to be Skippy the Nocturnal bush kangaroo (it was coming on nicely actually, might even share it at some point) but now it seems they are there after all. The key discovery was that, except for the big red kangaroos, they are quite small and once I had re-calibrated what I needed to look for, I was actually able to spot a few the next day. The site we stayed at in Karumba on the Gulf of Carpenteria (our most northern point) was awash with them so I have been well and truly skippied I am pleased to say.
Actually, let me run the new Skippy idea past you – just for your consideration and enjoyment (it might even lead to demand for a new series, who knows?? – maybe not)
Skippy the Nocturnal Bush Kangaroo. Programme 1:
It was nearly midnight and Ranger Steve-o, had been hard at it all day fighting bush fires, banging in fence posts and generally doing manly things. He had thrown a lot of cold tinnies down is neck, thrown a shrimp or two on the barbie, and had generally been kicking back after his strenuous day. His shirt was wet with sweat and he was just about to jump into the shower – sorry, that’s another version I was working on – and he was just about to go to bed. Suddenly there was a scratching at the window…
G’day Skippy mate. But what are you doing here at this time of night it’s nearly 12 o’clock and I’m just off to bed.
What’s that? Little Tommo is stuck in the Creek? What’s he doing there at this time?
Oh, some workers at the Roadhouse gave him Alcopops and he went walkabout and got stuck in the mud?
Nah Skip, I can’t do anything, I’ve drunk my body weight in lager. Why don’t you go?
What’s that? You need to hang with the boys and play chicken with the trucks in the dark now that you can’t hang around in the daytime since all the fame from your TV show means everyone was out gunning for you?
Well Skip, all I can say is take care when playing with the trucks – they’re straight out of the servos and who knows what strange pommies they’ve been talking to and drinking with. Yes, I know, but Little Tommo will have to wait until morning. He’s a bit of a loner anyway, and at least 30, so he can look after his bloody self – no worries I reckon.
With this, Skippy hops off into the night to leave Ranger Steve-o to do his ablutions and hit the sack before a very busy day doing man things tomorrow.
Programme Two: Ranger Steve-o and the Roadhouse cabaret night
What do you reckon? Has it got legs??
Anyway, I’ve clearly gone a bit ‘troppo’ and should leave it there for now. The Rough Guide to Australia says it all and explains a lot I think:
Regarding the Top End’s tropical climate: “From October to December temperatures and humidity begin to rise, clouds accumulate to discharge brief showers and it’s a time of year when the weak willed or insufficiently drunk can flip out and ‘go troppo’ as the unbearable heat, humidity and dysfunctional air conditioning push people over the edge.” Well I’m not sure about the insufficiently drunk bit…