Friday, December 31, 2010

Day 47: A Hot Highway South

December 31, 2010

Sleep doesn’t come easily but when it does it only lasts until somewhere in the deep recesses of the night. Then I lay awake listening to the slow shuffling of feet on the gravel road near our tent. It stops and I drift but come full awake again when I hear them again, closer this time. I’m ready to pounce if I hear that zip. Nothing. Again I drift.

I think about the encounter with the woman and wonder if it was real. Wonder what’s real and what isn’t in this crazy world. Whether those footsteps out there really are the return of the prowler or just my fetid imagination. What was that with the woman anyway?

It doesn’t seem long before the birds start singing the praises of the morning. I can see the light ascending in the interludes between my restless sleep. People are starting to make noise. A car starts up and rumbles past. Johan has gotten out of bed.

The water from the cold tap pours over me as I have my last shower before we head back into the bush. I wrap the towel around my head and let my body air-dry in the hot morning. As I’m approaching the tent, Johan’s sitting in his chair finishing breakfast. “Look here,” he says, and holds up my green wallet. “The manager just brought it by, found on the top of the Coke machine. He’s looked around for mine but nothing.” Everything’s as it was in the wallet, except for the cash and the few bits of paper found yesterday. And now the credit cards are worthless.

So it’s back to the practical necessities of life on the road – life on the road with no credit cards. After packing up we head into town in a quest to get enough cash to get us through the New Year holidays. We ask at two credit unions whether they’ll do an interstate transfer as our credit union doesn’t have branches in the Northern Territories. The first gives us a curt no. The second smiles and says, “No problem.”

It’s noon before we’ve finished our errands. The forecast is not good for New Year’s in South Australia – most centres south of the border will be well over 40˚. We head south on a section of the Stuart Highway we’ve now traveled over three times. The heat has done its thing with me and my mood is surly and introspective. That thing that happened last night sits on me like a gnawing animal tearing at my insides. What was that all about anyway?

The temperature gauge sits on 40˚ as we travel south on a near straight road. The mirages flicker thick and fast and make it seem more like we’re sailing down a river than driving down a highway that’s slowly melting the rubber on our tyres. It’s five o’clock before the temperature gauge reaches its peak at 43˚, six o’clock before we finally surrender our air-conditioned comfort and stop to pitch camp for the night on some deserted backroad.

A hot highway south

New Year's Eve in the bush

Day 46: The Dark Side of Alice

December 30, 2010

If you go into the ablution block at the Wintersun Caravan Park in Alice Springs, head into a cubicle and sit down on the toilet, what you’ll see in front of you, on the back of the door, is a sign that says, “Secure your valuables; thieves don’t take holidays” along with a cartoon character of a thief sneaking off with his booty. You’ll see this sign on the mirror as you’re washing your hands, this time in bright blue and laminated, and later again if you go to wash your clothes in the laundry. There’s obviously something fishy going on at the caravan park these days.

We wake up in a hot tent. Johan reaches over and pats my arm, then says, “Look at the bottom of the door.” I prop myself up and look down towards the tent door at floor level. There’s a strip of light coming through as the door is unzipped across the bottom and a few inches up the side. “Looks like you forgot to shut the door last night,” he chastises. Hardly. It’s true I was the last one in the tent, but my paranoia about mozzies, moths and gnats getting in the tent makes it highly unlikely I would be that forgetful.

I get up and look around at the assortment of stuff lying around the tent floor. Nothing’s amiss. I unzip the door and look around outside. Same. But it’s just not right. I wouldn’t have left the tent unzipped. I start searching around, looking for the wallets, phones, and other things of value. The computer and all its paraphernalia, all our other electronic gadgets, even bottles of rum and wine are all there. But where are the wallets? I look in the box that I have a vague memory of putting them in last night, underneath Johan’s hat. The camera’s in there – but where are the wallets?

Panic sets in. I look in and through everything, open the car and look through everything in there, back to the tent to look through everything again, and a third time. Our wallets are missing. And Johan’s mobile phone is nowhere to be found.

Unbelievable! How could anyone unzip the tent door, snoop around in our stuff in the dark without making any noise or mess, find the wallets and knick off – without our hearing a thing? I go down to the manager’s office. It’s 7am but he’s busy at his computer. “Oh no, not again,” he says when I tell him what’s happened. He tells me a few stories of other campers’ misfortunes, then a few of his own – he’s replaced the broken glass on his office three times in the last month. “They’re getting more brazen,” he grumbles, “because they know they can get away with it. Ninety-nine out of a hundred get away with it. The one percent that get caught get their hands slapped down at the court house and let go.” Hmm. It’s always about “them” in this town. Anything goes wrong, out of sorts – blame it on them.

He offers to go looking for the wallets in the bushes along the verge. Good idea. I head out the other direction, then cross the street and search a few hundred meters either side of the caravan park. But it’s the proverbial needle in a haystack – so many bushes – and there’s a whole field of grass and trees across the street they could have taken off into.

When I return to the caravan park the manager’s looking at some bits of paper in his hand. “She found these over next to that van,” he says pointing to his wife who’s snooping around the bushes next to an empty park van. I look at the familiar papers – receipts from my credit card transactions, a business card from the woman who cuts my hair back home, a Civic Video card from Bunbury. “Yeah, it’s all mine,” I say. But more searching through the bushes doesn’t produce any flung wallets. Time to go through the dreadful chore of cancelling all the cards.

There was less than a hundred dollars cash in my wallet, none in Johan’s. But there were four credit cards from four different banks, one in Holland. Luckily we have one phone left to start making calls with, but that one doesn’t always work the best and now keeps breaking up and cutting out as we’re trying to explain the situation to officious bank people who want all our details, pins and security questions answered correctly before they’ll do anything. Fortunately Johan’s written all the information down on a separate sheet of paper, so the process should go smoothly – if only the phone connection wouldn’t keep breaking off. Every time it does, we have to recall and start from the beginning again.

We go to the police station and fill out a form. The middle aged white cop has heard enough of these stories and, though friendly, isn’t too sympathetic. “They’re getting bolder out there,” he confirms. “We think one of them lives behind the caravan park because it happens to a lot of campers. Unfortunately we can’t nab ‘em because by the time we’re on to something, the campers have moved on and can’t make any positive identifications for us. They know they’re onto something.”

Hmm. Well, I guess that makes us just another statistic. Not that we really thought we’d get anywhere reporting the crime. But just in case the wallets get found and turned in, at least they can contact us.

I’m surprisingly unfettered by all this. The trouble is, as always, I too easily see the other side of the story: oppressed black people sitting on generations of anger, barred from the privileges white people take for granted, suffering onslaughts of racism in all its ignominious forms on a daily basis. I’d be pretty pissed at white people too. I’d have no scruples about whether preying upon them is OK or not. I’d just want my due. And a bit of extra cash to fund my addictive behaviours as a way of coping with all this shit.

It’s heating up in Alice. The morning is spent running through our chores brought on by the midnight heist in our tent. By mid-afternoon we’re spent and return to the caravan park to sit under the shade of a gum tree reading and sending emails.

After dinner I head out for a walk. It hasn’t cooled much but at least the sun isn’t beating down on us anymore. The empty field across from the caravan park is inviting, leading up to a rocky outcrop that would be fun to scramble up. But the field is full of black people, sitting, squatting and standing in circles – owning their territory. This is the inverse of the pub in town last night: white people are unofficially barred entry to this black man’s world. I stay on the footpath.

I cross the highway a kilometer down and head back towards the caravan park on the other side of the road. Dusk is settling in. Up ahead is a single black woman slumped on a grassy verge, her sandals sitting next to her and a bottle of something in her hand. It’s the kind of situation you’d want to make a beeline around if you were a lone white woman out walking in the early evening in a disreputable neighborhood. But I resolve to pass by her, not wanting to give into this ‘us and them’ environment so rife in Alice Springs.

“Hey you,” she calls out to me as I walk past. “Cannu he’p me?” Last time this happened, I smiled and walked on. I stop and turn towards the woman.

“What do you want?” I say, cautious but not unkindly. She mumbles something and rubs her belly. I squat down next to her. “What’s the matter?” Again, she mumbles incoherently and sticks her fingers into her abdomen. “Are you hungry?” I ask. “Can I get you some food?” She tries again to explain, but I can’t get what she’s trying to convey. I sit on the grass next to her. “Are you in pain?”

The woman rubs her left leg, her face grimacing while she tries to tell me what’s bothering her. She lies down on the grass, her face crumpled in pain. Yellowy phlegm comes to the corner of her mouth and she spits it on the grass a few centimeters away. She takes my hand – I resist the instinct to pull it away – places it on her belly and holds it there. I try again to enquire into her pain, but she’s gone dumb now, resting quietly on the grass clutching my hand. She moves it to another part of her abdomen, then another, then up to forehead, each time, holding it there as though I would have some special healing power over her.

I ask where she lives, what her name is, where her family is. The only thing I can gather from her muffled responses is that she has no one, no one cares for her. Eventually I give up the questioning and just sit with her, my hand on her belly. I start to massage it gently, the way I like my belly massaged when it hurts. She takes it in, then points to her leg. I rub that too. She takes my hand and holds it, curls towards me as though she wants to be held. “No one, no one…” she mutters. I stroke her face and her mat of grey hair. “Yes, I know,” is all I can think of to say.

A couple of young black men walk past. “Hey, do you know this woman?” I call out. They look over their shoulders, “Nah, sorry,” then walk on. It’s getting darker. What do I do? She lies on the grass, the Sleeping Woman, her unshapely breasts sagging to the sides of her body. She is so still, I wonder momentarily whether she’s died. But suddenly her eyes flick and open half way and she rolls over and spits another wad of yellow phlegm.

“Shall I take you to the hospital?” I prod. “They can give you something for your pain, make you feel better.” She doesn’t respond, clutching my hand. “Look, I’ll take you to the hospital. I’ll just go get my car and then I’ll drive you to the hospital. O.K? I’ll be right back.” She lets go my hand but says nothing. I get up and walk away, past a group of feisty youth hanging out in the shopping plaza parking lot. I look over my shoulder and in the twilight can just see that she’s sitting up again, clutching her drink bottle as she was when I met her.

What am I doing? What do I do now? What was that all about? I wrestle with my characteristic indecision in these rare situations that call for quick thinking and decisive action. The liberal white middle class do-gooder in me wants to help but I’m not altogether convinced I’m not being hoodwinked into a situation I’d rather not find myself in. And because of the religious bent in me I can’t help but ask, “What would Jesus do?” Jesus. He would just put his hands on the bloody woman and she’d walk away healed. Sorry, but that’s not me, lady. I’ve been trying that for years with my husband’s pain but there’s not a drop of healing magic in me. And to tell you the truth, I’m a bit spent with dealing with people’s pain, yours, his, my own.

I walk through the open gates at the caravan park where a man sits on top of a boom truck working on the security lights. Johan saunters towards me as I near the tent site. I can see in his gait a questioning worry. “I think I’ve got myself into a bit of a predicament,” I say and tell him about my encounter with the black woman. “See? This is what you get when you break the barriers between them and us. A situation you’d probably rather not be in.” But I’m resolved to follow through with my promise. Johan wants to come with me but the back seat of the car is down and loaded with stuff. And to be honest, I can only deal with one person’s pain at a time, if at all.

I drive onto the highway and towards the shopping plaza. As I near the corner where I sat with the woman, I slow down. But it’s dark now and hard to see. A police car is coming out of the plaza, turning in my direction. I veer over into the left lane, thinking it’ll pass me, wondering briefly whether I shouldn’t wave it down and get some help. But the police car stays behind me, then follows me as I switch to the right lane and turn right. I intend to make a u-turn back to where the woman was sitting, but the police have turned their flashing lights on and I pull over. I open the car door and get out. Three young white police officers come towards me. “Is there a problem?” one of them says. I launch into my story…a sick woman…on the side of the road…sat with her for a while…staying at the caravan park…thought I could help.

“You were driving a bit erratically,” another says.

“Yes, I thought I would stop and ask your advice about what I should do.”

“Don’t do anything,” one cop says emphatically. “Not in this town. People want to help them, but it’s not advised. It may be OK nine times out of ten, but it may also be a set-up to mug you. We’ll go check it out.”

“OK,” I concede. “It would be good if you could go and see if she needs any help.” And they let me get back in my car and drive away. As I pass by the spot where the woman sat, the grass is empty. I wonder if the cops believe my story. They follow me until I turn into the caravan park, then pull a u-turn and head back towards town.

I don’t doubt that the police are far more seasoned than I when it comes to dealing with Aboriginals. But perhaps they’re also more jaded by their daily wranglings with these petulant, unpredictable people. Maybe she did want to hurt me or to get something out of me in some way. The thought disturbs me far greater than the impudent thief who took our wallets last night.

Those cops probably enjoyed a good chuckle over this one – just another bleeding heart trying to do right by the black fellas of this country. But I truly can’t see that she wanted anything from me, other than a hand, to touch and to hold her.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Day 45: Back in Alice

December 29, 2010

I wring out my shirt and put it back on wet. Next I pour water over my head from the little remaining in the bucket. It’s 8 o’clock in the morning. “I’m just cooling my temper as the heat rises,” I tell Johan who’s wondering why I’m interrupting the flow of packing up to get wet. It’s the only way I know not to get grouchy when the temperature’s already well past 30˚ and the temp inside the tent is a good 10˚ higher as I’m making the bed and taking down the poles.

Why do I love the outback so much if the heat gets to me so badly? We posit this paradox over breakfast, along with the bigger question: Why do we love the outback at all when it’s so harsh and hard to travel through? Some paradoxes just go unsolved, but the best answer we can get out of this one is that’s it’s just worth the challenge. Something in the challenge, the struggle of it all, makes it that much more exciting to achieve. Why do people climb Mt Everest after all?

Heat makes me grumpy, it’s true, but the feeling of cool water on me when I’m about to pop my cork is a fabulous experience. What else can I say? It’s one of those weird but wonderful eccentricities we all have. Isn’t it?

But as the day wears on, it’s becoming increasingly clear to both of us that enough is enough. The last 150kms of the Outback Way to Alice is paved and when our tyres roll onto the smooth bitumen, Johan once again breaths a sigh of relief. No more dirt roads. Not for a good long time.

We cruise into Alice around 3pm, tired but flushed from our success: we managed to drive the entire 2750kms of the Outback Way! With that achievement under our belt, we’ve little energy left for further adventure. Not in the wet east of Queensland nor the monsoon tropics of the north. After a couple of days’ rest in Alice, we’ll head south towards Adelaide, then west across the Nullabor to home. As our real estate agent is holding a home open on the 9th of January, we decide we’ll get home on the 10th, to save her and our house from the onslaught of dust, camping gear and dirty clothes.

We pull into the first caravan park as we’re entering Alice from the north. It’s shady and quiet and the pool will be a welcome reprieve from the heat and dust of the outback. After paying the manager for two nights, she says as I’m walking out the door, “Be sure to secure your valuables.” Good idea in a town like Alice; the proliferation of barbed wire fencing is evidence of a fair amount of thievery going on in the town.

We set up camp and head for the pub. A celebratory drink is in order and we grab an outdoor table at Uncle’s Tavern in town. Workers in fluorescent shirts and grimy caps smoke cigarettes and share yarns about their day. The tavern’s verandah is surrounded by a black wrought iron fence with a row of gold tipped arrows pointing up along the top. It gives one the feeling of being in a cage. On the other side, along the footpath, black men and women and a few children wander by, looking hot and downtrodden, avoiding eye contact with the beer drinkers.

“This is what it’s like in South Africa or the Deep South of the U.S.,” I say to Johan. Fences separating the privileged from the under-privileged. Only who’s trapped in the cage?

Hot and tired -- but we finished the Outback Way! Yahoo!!

Time for a celebratory drink

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Day 44: Together and Alone – the Outback Way

December 28, 2010

“I think our next holiday is going to be one of total leisure.” Johan slumps in his camp chair, his elbows resting on his knees. We’re having breakfast and the day’s supply of heat and bugs have already surrounded us. I don’t think he’s looking forward to another round of packing up the tent.

The issue of Johan’s back pain is an untold story in our travels. It’s not easy traveling with a disability; also not easy to travel with someone with a disability. He’s either mad or brave to attempt it. It takes a lot of something to maintain his patience and his good spirits during such a demanding trip, which mostly he does.

But it’s wearing on him, I can see that. Much of his days are spent nursing his pain, slumped over the steering wheel when he can’t easily get out of the car after a day of driving, or hobbling carefully through the exercise of putting up and taking down the camper trailer, or clutching his leg in a camp chair when his pain interrupts yet another camp chore, or crunched up in bed, reading a book while waiting out yet another back attack while I’m off walking or exploring the countryside.

This morning, when I ask him, as I’ve done several times during this trip, if he’s had enough, he says again, “No, it’s good to be out here.” Still, we play with various fantasies about our next holiday – a week at a luxurious resort in Bali; inviting the entire extended family, which spans five countries, to a holiday resort in Cairnsnot in the wet season; or maybe we’ll just become cruise ship junkies, reading books on deck chairs all day.

It’s getting to me too. Not that I mind the extra work to compensate for Johan’s many down times. I like the physical exercise of setting up camp after a sedentary day in the car. But the back pain does interrupt the flow of things, quite regularly and the challenges of doing ‘normal’ holiday things – shopping, enjoying a meal in a café, visiting museums and sites of interest – often make it just too difficult to attempt. I think what bothers me the most is a sense of loneliness over the fact that Johan and I just can’t do many things that we used to do together anymore. I do a lot of things on my own now.

No, what really bothers me most is when my own nerves get frazzled to the point where I don’t feel compassion anymore for the amount of pain he has to endure. And the stresses of a physically demanding holiday, coupled with high heat and too many flies, render me frequently grumpy. It doesn’t help his back situation.

Today we drive through monotonous flat landscapes of grass and sparse trees. Once we cross the Northern Territory border, the road conditions worsen. I guess the N.T. doesn’t have the revenue of Queensland, which is working hard to get their end of the Outback Way upgraded. Johan drives the whole day, partly because it’s something he can do that doesn’t cause his back to flare, partly because he knows I don’t like to drive. And partly because he doesn’t like it that I’m not as cautious a driver as he is on outback roads!

Late in the afternoon we start to see hills, a welcome relief from so much empty desert. We take a side road along the Black Hills and find a spot to camp in the savannah below them. The Aboriginals call this strip of hills “Sleeping Woman” and after pondering them for a while, Johan points out the face, breasts, belly and feet of the snoozing lady.

There’s a cairn atop the highest hill – it looks like the belly button on the massive round stomach of the woman – and up there somewhere is our next cache. I leave Johan to set up camp while I climb the peak. It’s steep and requires some rock hopping and scrambling but it doesn’t take long to scale. A pervasive sadness sits just under my bad mood, remembering rock climbs and hikes we use to do in our early days together. Now all my walks are done alone while he rests back at camp.

I can’t find the cache, which doesn’t help my foul mood. But the view across the Simpson Desert is striking. I sit alone atop the peak and muse over the beauty and expanse and emptiness of the land.

 The Donahue Highway in Queensland...

...turns to the Plenty Highway in the "Nature" Territory!

 Cairn atop the Black Hills

On top of the Sleeping Woman looking across the Simpson Desert

Black Hills camp

Day 43: Onwards on the Outback Way

December 27, 2010

This final leg of the Outback Way is known as the Kennedy Development Road, probably named such by some unimaginative civil engineer. But on our map, in brackets, we see it’s also known by the more poetic “MinMin Byway”. Apparently, for the past hundred years, people have been seeing strange lights hovering over the land in this area – dubbed the Min Min Lights. Some call it a natural phenomenon, yet as far as we can tell there’s been no scientific explanation posited. Others call it a supernatural phenomenon – aliens, angels or, because they’re said to originate in the cemetery, ghosts.

We don’t see them, but are delighted to see an exotic array of birdlife on the last leg of the journey to Boulia. We stop the car when a flock of long-legged Brolgas fly low over us, then watch as they glide higher and higher into the distance, riding the thermals. We get out the binoculars. A pair of forked-tailed kites appear in the foreground, searching for prey. Zebra finches and stints flutter around, excited by the flush of the wet season. Ducks and spoonbills prance around in a nearby swamp. A stunning white egret swoops down, lands, then fans her wings and alights again. The car is parked in the middle of the one-lane highway while we survey the skies and the waterholes with our binoculars for the next twenty minutes. We haven’t seen another car all morning.

I’m hoping to investigate the mysterious light phenomenon in the Min Min Museum in Boulia, but we’ve forgotten that Monday is a holiday, due to Christmas and Boxing Day falling on a weekend this year. Everything’s shut except the petrol station so we fuel up. My ears prick up when the attendant answers my query about the Plenty Highway – the next section of the Outback Way to Alice Springs. He thinks it’s open. Best thing is to call one of the station owners to find out the condition of the road.

We’d intended to head north out of Boulia, back to the main highway at Mount Isa as the RAC website still shows the Plenty Highway closed. The last unchartered section of the Outback Way would have to be forsaken. But this recent bit of information has raised our eyebrows. Johan rings the number provided in our guidebook for Glenormiston station, 116kms in. The helpful station owner says we shouldn’t have a problem in our AWD – the road’s dry and the forecast is good for the next few days. Whoopee! We’ve just got the all-clear to finish the Outback Way!

There’s not much between here and Alice Springs, 800kms due east except a few stations, massive enterprises of up to 1.5 million acres. The sparse herds of cows look parched and heavy in their thick leather coats. The landscape is a vast endless plain of natural grasses, perfect for the pastoral industries that established themselves here in the late 19th century. No one else could survive.

We’re grateful that the first 20kms of the road is paved but when the bitumen stops the road is rocky, rutted and wearing on the nerves. We stop at a Telstra tower at Boulia to look for a cache. These 100meter high towers appear every hundred kilometers or so and provide outback residents access to information, electronic commerce and health and education services. They don’t provide mobile phone coverage; these separate towers are only located in towns – of which there are none between Boulia and Alice Springs.

The GPS reading leads me to a small breakaway where I have to clamour over loose rocks to find a series of holes and ledges in the rock. As I’m nearing the coordinates reading for the cache, something loud and large scampers out of my way. I look into a hole, about where the reading says the cache should be located, and see a wary yellow eye situated in a huge striated head glaring out at me. Back of this head is a fat spotted body the size of a small seal. It looks like a dragon.

It’s actually a Gould’s goanna, one of the largest lizards in Australia. I can understand why Aboriginal people like to eat them; this one looks like he has ample amounts of juicy meat on him. I’ve never heard of human’s being endangered by goannas, but I’m not keen to push my luck. And I’m even less keen to stick my face in this lizard’s cubby hole to see if my cache is within. He’s probably eaten it by now anyway. This one gets ticked “Unfound”.

The Georgina River is where the RAC website located the problem area on this section of the Outback Way. This flat land is called “channel country” because rivers can extend up to 20kms wide in the wet season with a series of thin channels that snake through the land. A water mark shows the river rose to over 10meters high in 1974 and has flooded to lesser degrees every few years since.

But the cloudy brown water is safely below the concrete bridge as we pass over it, relieved that the one potential hazard in this section is easily traversed. We pitch camp at a shaded site overlooking the river and watch the abundance of birdlife flickering up and down the open corridor created by the river. We’re back in intense heat and sun – the day peaked at 39˚ -- and the night doesn’t cool much. Rampant mosquitoes drive us indoors just after nightfall. We read for an hour, cooling wet cloths draped over our bodies and the sound of flicking insects beating against the sides of the tent, hoping for an entry.

Outback cows

Gould's goanna protecting a cache

Water marker next to the Georgina River

Georgina River camp

Day 42: Back on the Outback Way

December 26, 2010

Winton is known for one other thing: it’s the east end of the Outback Way. When we embarked on the Central Road in Laverton in mid-November, Winton was our destination, 2750kms northeast. We found out in Alice Springs that the next section or the track, the Plenty and Donahue Hwys from Alice to Boulia in Queensland, was closed due to a wash-out somewhere in the middle of that 800km section. Disappointed, we turned south towards South Australia and our mission to visit the American Embassy in Sydney.

Now, almost four weeks later and after traversing a wide circle south to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, east to Sydney, New South Wales and north to Rockhampton on the Queensland coast, we’ve returned to the Way. Despite inclement weather, we decide to do the final section of the track, 362kms from Winton to Boulia. It’s a single-lane paved road heading almost due east, which helps our determination to get out from under this wet, wet front. If we head north to Mount Isa on the main highway, we’re likely to still meet plenty of rain.

Winton farewells us with a grand finale: thirty minutes of intense downpour that turns the wide vacant streets into wading pools. We do some last minute interneting while we wait out the shower, then head north on the main highway. The turn off to Boulia is in eight kilometers. Though the sky is still at thick mass of grey, a strip of blue lines the western horizon – the direction we’re heading.

Ah! It’s so good to be leaving civilization again, back in the red, red country with vistas that spill out into a vast nothingness. There’s an inexplicable appeal to be confronted with so much emptiness.

Now we revert to a more casual style of travel, where the journey becomes the focus rather than the destination. Fifty kilometers down the track the flat landscape gives way to rolling red hills and flat-topped mesas with wide expanse of green savannah in between. We pull out the hand-held GPS and locate the final cache on the Way. It requires a steep climb up a rocky mesa but the views from up top are splendid, worth the sweaty effort.

A further 100kms along is the Middleton Hotel, a surprising Aussie icon sprouting from the middle of nowhere. Middleton used to be a thriving community of around a hundred people, but now there’s only two: Lester Cain and his wife. Our guidebook describes Lester as a “classic outback character”, always willing to spin a good yarn with passersby. My first impression of Les when we step into his run-down hotel is that he looks a lot older than the photo taken for our guidebook back in 2008. A lot. And his wife doesn’t look too happy either.

He’s a coy character with a simple, boyish charm, but it’s true, he does like to talk, in a quiet sort of way. He wants to know where we’re coming from and going to and tells us about some of the eccentrics who’ve passed by his hotel over the years, including the bicycling Dutchman who ordered two steak burgers for dinner the night he camped out.

“How long you been here?” Johan asks during a lull in the conversation.

“’Bout five an’ a half years,” Lester says with a grimace, looking at his wife, who looks away. “Five years and eight months to be exact. Wasn’t going to stay longer than five years, but there ya go.” His wife grimaces and busies herself with bar work.

“What’s stopping you from moving on?” Johan prods.

Lester looks confused, unsure how to answer. Then he reaches for his hat, takes it off and extends it towards us. “Money!” he blurts, his face breaking into a big smile. “You got any?” We all laugh. Except for the wife.

We pay for our two lemon-lime and bitters – not a big sale for his second lot of customers for the day – and wave good-bye. Later I think I should have thanked Lester, for keeping the Aussie ideal alive for us itinerant travelers who want just a taste of what Lester and his wife have to endure day after day, year after year. It can’t be an easy life.

A bit further down the road we stop at a windmill, gently pulsing in the hot wind. The Great Artesian Basin, which we learned about during our visit to Lake Eyre, sits directly underneath us and the pastorlists use it to water their stock. A waist-high water pipe next to the windmill is spouting artesian spring water but it’s too hot to touch. It feeds a perfectly round dam with clear and surprisingly cool water. We can’t resist the opportunity for a cool-down and wash.

Towards mid-afternoon we meet another range of red-topped mesas, the Lillyvale Hills. There’s a look-out and another cache to find and plenty of places to park off-road for the night. A ten-out-of-ten spot. We haven’t passed another car since just before Middleton. It’s going to be a quiet night – and the grey blanket’s breaking up to reveal a night sky display like we haven’t seen since leaving Uluru.

 The mesa landscape of Castle Hill meets us soon after we re-embark on the Outback Way

The clouds are breaking up -- blue sky ahead!

A picture of Lester Cain from our guidebook -- I was too shy to ask to take his picture
when we enjoyed a drink at his Middleton Hotel

A welcome swim in a cool Artesian waterhole

Lillyvale Hills camp

Sunset photos from up top the mesa

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Day 40-41: Merry Christmas

December 24-25, 2010

They’ve taken the Closed Road sign down so we’re free to travel to Longreach. There are still flooded patches of road, but the rain has let up and we only encounter brief showers along the way.

Longreach is full of festive spirit, everyone out for last minute buys before the shops shut for Christmas. We tackle the IGA and fill our shopping trolley with enough fixings to make a camp Christmas meal. Not a turkey in sight so we opt for roast pork, filled with stuffing and cranberries – sounds Christmassy.

The road northwest to Winton is quiet and the landscape loses some of the tropical green we’ve grown accustom to. By the time we near Winton, it’s looking very outback again. Finally.

There are three things special about this area: airlines, songwriters and dinosaurs. Qantas airline was started in Winton in 1920 and transferred to Longreach in 1921. There’s a spectacular aviation museum there to chronicle its history. Winton is also the place where Banjo Paterson penned the Waltzing Matilda song in 1895, what many Australians would prefer for our national anthem. There’s a Waltzing Matilda museum dedicated totally to the song in the middle of town. Finally, dinosaur fossils have been found in the surrounding area and there are several places where you can see the fossils and learn about dinosaurs. The most interesting exhibit is in the Lake Quarry Conservation Park where the world’s only recorded evidence of a dinosaur stampede has been found in fossils. Regrettably, it’s 130kms down an unsealed road that’s only open to 4WD in this weather.

Winton is a typical dusty, unadorned outback town. Wide streets, few pretensions, not a soul to be found in the late afternoon on Christmas Eve. We’re the only guests for the night at the caravan park on the fringe of town. The rotund owner heaves herself carefully down the two steps into the reception area after I ring the bell three or four times. We’re her only sale for the day -- $21 – but she’s friendly and offers to ring the priest at St John’s when we ask if she knows when Christmas Mass is on. Six-thirty she repeats to the Father on the phone.

We park at the church at 6.20. The empty town has produced enough believers to warrant the dozen or two cars now surrounding the church. As we approach the entry, we hear the congregation reciting the Nicene Creed. The service must have started at 6pm. We stand at the back and watch for a few minutes but decide not to stay; we’ve missed half the service.

Back at the caravan park the evening sky is starting to throw up a crimson sunset. We sing a few carols to compensate for the missed church opportunity. “What’s the point of it all?” I ponder to Johan. “Why do we keep doing it, all the lights and presents and parties and time off work? Why, when not many really care or even know about the real meaning of Christmas?” “Because it still gets through,” he says. “People still feel the spirit of Christmas, even if they don’t think about the religious stuff.”

That’s good enough for me. And there is something irresistibly pleasant about this night, even though it’s just the two of us in a disheveled caravan park that looks more like a junk-filled storage yard. We relish a dinner of smoked salmon pasta with broccolini, followed by creamy rice pudding with sour cherry sauce. After dark we drive up and down the streets of Winton enjoying the few spirited houses lighted up for Christmas. One house wins the prize for most sensational: a three-dimensional brilliant light display covering the entire house, garage and yard. There’s even a singing life-size Santa waving at us out the front. We wave at the people in the yard holding drinks in their hands, enjoying a Christmas Eve party in the most festive house in Winton.

The caravan park is across the street from the all night BP station so we we’re subjected to an array of peculiar noises throughout the night – idling semi’s, screeching tyres from local revelers, a two-way radio broadcasting crackled conversations into the night air.

The clouds have broken by morning and a hot, humid wind is blowing. We’re able to dry two loads of washed clothes before check-out time at 10am. We head to the town’s recreation field and set up the computer in the front seat of the car to Skype with family and email friends around the world. Merry Christmas!

We drive out to the Bladensburg National Park, but aren’t game to venture too far down the dirt track with the precarious weather situation. Dark clouds are still looming and occasionally spit a few drops. We set up camp in a flat area of scrub, Coolibah trees and low-lying rocky outcrops. Probably the nicest gift we could have received on this Christmas Day is being back in the outback, camping in a solitary spot with only the wind and birds to serenade us with their carols. I take a two-hour walk through the scrubland and enjoy the light rain on my sweaty skin and the sight of festive red kangaroos bouncing off when I surprise them.

Christmas dinner is a feast. While it cooks in the Dutch oven, Johan and I break out the bottle of sparkling Shiraz we’d brought from home for the occasion and enjoy a happy hour with toasted Turkish bread and Brie. We aren’t big drinkers and can’t remember ever sharing a whole bottle of wine together, but on this lovely afternoon in the bush, we manage to polish off nearly three-quarters of our sparkling Shiraz. Maybe that had some influence on our enjoyment of the sensational meal that followed – roast pork with roasted sweet potato, onion, potato and brussel sprouts with a splash of cranberry sauce on the side. For me, the cook on this expedition, it was also the extreme ease with which is was prepared – throw it in the pot and an hour and a half later a sumptuous roast dinner is served! Shouldn’t it always be this easy??

The wine makes us silly for a while as we reflect on Christmases past and the novelty of this present one. But then it just makes us sleepy. At 5 o’clock, happily satiated with our Christmas meal, we lie down for a snooze. We get up just after 6pm to enjoy the grand finale of this feast: Christmas pudding with custard and a cuppa herbal tea. It’s been a Christmas to remember.

 Winton caravan park on Christmas Eve

 Enjoying a Christmas Eve meal at sunset

Best of Show: One Winton resident put on a fine display for Christmas Eve

Skyping with family on Christmas Day
(this is a photo my mom took of us from their computer in Port Townsend USA)

Let the feast begin: Christmas Dinner hors d'oeuvres

 Christmas dinner

Storms looming near our Christmas camp

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Day 39: More Wet

December 23, 2010

The grouchy manager told us last night the roads to Longreach will likely close soon due to the rain. I nodded, remembering how blokes on the cusp of a crisis can be prone to hyperbole. We’ll see.

It appears grumpy Andrew didn’t sleep off his bad mood because he’s not much friendlier in the morning. When we ask about road closures he petulantly answers that they’re open, as though he’d been caught out in his failed attempt to predict a disaster. The morning is dry and the clouds have lightened. But the forecast is for continued rain. We better make tracks while the roads are open; if we can get far enough west, we’ll hopefully be able to avert potential delays if the rains are as bad as they’re forecast to be.

I look back longingly at the lovely villa by the lake as we get in the car to leave. It would have been nice to stay here a few days. A perfect place to be stranded in. But ah well. Reason got the better of us and we’re off to beat the rising floodwaters.

An hour west and the rains start again. The further into the day we get the harder it rains. By mid-afternoon we’re slowing down every few kilometers to navigate flooded road sections, some over 20cm deep. This kind of thing tears at Johan’s worst fears. I’m convinced Dutchmen have fear of drowning seeded deep in their psyches. I can feel him bristle as he planes through the open water fields, some flowing at quite a pace. Will the tide lift us off our solid footing and into the meter deep ditch by the side of the road?

We cruise into Barcaldine at 4 o’clock. It’s only another 100kms to Longreach and then, hopefully, we’re on the edge of the front. We stop briefly to look at a huge black box suspended smack in the centre of town and looming tall over the row of rundown hotels along the main street. It looks like a giant cast iron water tank like we’ve seen in the outback. Must be something to do with coal mining, I mumble as I grab the camera to go investigate. Inside the imposing dark cube is a world of hanging wooden planks. Gazing up into them I see that they were intentionally sculpted to create the visage of giant tree. The trunk of an ancient dead tree has been cemented into the ground in the centre of this artwork. A sign says this is the Tree of Knowledge.

Why it’s named that is unclear. The sculpture is meant to commemorate the fighting spirit of the early pastoralists and unionists in the area. It’s claimed their protests in the early 20th century gave birth to the Australian Labour Party. Perhaps the biblical reference was yet another example of outback hyperbole?

It’s a surreal diversion from our preoccupation with rain. I slosh back through the puddles and get in the car. The rubber mat at my feet is collecting its own pool from my soaked sandals. I prop the computer on my lap and continue my efforts to book a motel in Longreach.

Just as I’m entering our credit card details, Johan exclaims, “Whoa. Hold on a minute,” and stops the car. Ahead of us, on our exit from Barcaldine is a sign blocking the road: Road Closed. Gotcha.

We check into the Outlander Motel which also offers outdoor alfresco dining seven days a week. The lady at reception wants to know if she should put dinner on our credit card as well -- $25 for a buffet of steaks and barramundi – but I say we’ll think about it. There’s a fridge full of aging food in the car and we better be practical, despite the temptation to fraternize with the locals over beef and a brew. I put chicken legs, potatoes and acorn squash in the Dutch oven before I take off for a much needed walk through the streets of Barcaldine at sundown. The rain has finally let up.

A wet road day

Barcaldine's iconic sculpture: the Tree of Knowledge

It's good our motel room was up on stilts!

The day ended with a beautiful sunset...

...and a rainbow

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Day 38: Queensland Wet

December 22, 2010

It had to happen at least once – packing up in the rain. It’ll probably happen again given the seven-day forecast, which doesn’t show a dry day in it. Welcome to summer in Queensland.

We pore over the internet websites we’ve bookmarked: Bureau of Meteorology for the weather report; RACQ for road conditions. If we continue north it’s doubtful we’ll see a dry day; Townsville and Cairns both have 90% chance of rain through Christmas. If we head west, we may find the edge of the front in a day or two. At least the chance of rain diminishes in the towns in central and western Queensland. Alice Springs is a sunny 36˚ -- and holding. We decide to turn west.

We throw a plastic tarp over the bed and hope for the best when we fold the soggy tent over on to it. The rain is relentless and runs down my arms inside my raincoat as I busy myself with packing the trailer. I took a shower when I first got up this morning, but I needn’t have bothered; I’m drenched again. I peel off my coat, ring it out and place it in a bucket in the backseat. The rest of me is wet too but I get in the front seat and hope I'll dry out while we drive. At least it’s a balmy 20˚ at 9am.

We drive and drive and it rains and rains. We head west out the Capricorn Highway – named for its close proximity to the Tropic of Capricorn. It’s mining country west of Rockhampton and billboards advertise massive trucks for hire and earthmoving services. Bright blue and red Holden V8s colour the otherwise dreary landscape. Long trains snake along beside us carrying neatly compacted carriages of coal.

If we’re game, the local tourist attractions offer refuge from the rain in the form of Australia’s largest coal-mining museum, gem fossicking (sapphires, zircons, amethysts) and historic buildings from the gold-mining era. But we’re goal-oriented now, wanting only to get far enough inland to clear the rain and have a dry camping night.

We look for lunch possibilities out of the rain but the greasy take-aways don’t appeal. We opt for a covered picnic table at a park in Gracemere. The lush lawn could use a mow and my feet get soaked sloshing back and forth to the car with lunch paraphernalia. The covered gas barbecue works and I make us grilled cheese and turkey sandwiches.

We pass up Blackwater as a stopover option. It’s only 4pm and perhaps we can get another 100 k’s down the road. Emerald sounds a nice town to stay the night.

But Emerald at 5pm is full of congestion, cars and people going home from work or out for last minute shopping as Christmas week veers towards its close. And it’s still raining. We check out a number of motels but the nice ones are too expensive and the affordable ones too grungy. It’s hard to pay $140 for a bed when we’ve camped free most of the way. And I’m not use to paying full price for accommodation, so – back to!

We find two $125/night options: one a motel on the edge of town, the other a Discovery Holiday Park on Lake Marabeon 16kms south of town. The “Deluxe Villa” on the lake sounds appealing, plus we can cook our own meals, so we book and pay on-line. It’s now just past 6pm.

The dam is gushing over with a slick rush of pale brown water as we drive over it. The 50km long lake is beautiful and in the advancing dusk it’s hard to tell the division between the lake and the drizzly grey clouds above it. The Reception office is dark as we drive through the entrance into the park. A big ‘Closed’ sign advertises office hours in small print: 8am to 6pm. It’s now 6.40pm. How can a business selling overnight accommodation close so early?

We find the manager’s residence and rustle him out of the shower and back into the office to procure our booking. His thin veil of friendliness only just masks his irritation – didn’t we read the fine print on the on-line booking form? No bookings accepted after 6pm. Sorry, we didn’t.

The villa is clean, colourful and smells of coconut. Johan opens wide the windows to let in the fresh moist air and flips on the news while I set about making dinner. The Queensland ABC has several reports on the rain and the damage caused by flooding throughout the state. A weather expert forecasts continued rain for the next three months. Wet weary Queenslanders aren't out of it yet.

The balmy evening lets in a chorus of cricket and frog chirps, plus the gentle lapping of waves from the lakeside just below our cottage. It’s a lovely place and it’s only three days to Christmas. Should we wait out the rain, enjoy a comfortable holiday and stay another couple of nights?


The roads are a bit treacherous in this weather

Full to overflowing! Lake Marabeon

Holiday villa on the lake

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Day 37: A Last Kiss from the Sun

December 21, 2010

We headed northwest out of Ipswich last night on the Brisbane Valley Highway. Not far up we find a campground at Lake Wivenhoe. We attempt to pitch camp at a lovely spot next to the water but a camper comes down from his site higher up and tells us the dam is filling quickly from the recent rains and it’s not advisable to be so near the water’s edge. We relocate to higher ground, where six or seven other campers have already parked for the night.

Today is the last sunny day we’ll probably have for a while. The forecast is for a week of heavy rain, all up the Queensland coast. Better enjoy it while we have it. The highlight of the day is driving through a flooded section of the Burnett Highway. Cars are backed up either side of a fifty meter spread of water over the highway. But cars with lower clearance than ours are going for it. We follow the train of motorists through the murky brown water.

We decide to return to the coast near Bundaberg via the Isis highway. It’s a long driving day with not much of interest to stop for and we both feel a bit numb when we stop at Monduran Dam Holiday Park in the mid-afternoon. A wide front of weather has been developing on the northeast horizon all day and the sky is full of grey clouds by the time we set camp. I work out my gloominess, aggravated by the long dull driving day and the portend of rain, on a 6km trail that winds around the artificial lake. Somewhere in the night, the drops of rain begin.

Crossing the deluge

Monduran Dam camp

Day 36: Queensland and a Friend I’ve Never Met

December 20, 2010

Byron Bay lives in a world of its own. A crisscross of commercial streets makes up its centre. At the top of the cross is a park on the Pacific Ocean where barely clad young people turn bronze and flaunt their beautiful bodies. There’s nothing very practical about the shops, except the chemist and a post office tucked behind an organic health food café and store. All are there to serve the image this town thrives on – an alternative, left-wing, new age hot spot of the east coast. The gods and goddesses of youth reign here where sensuality spills onto the streets in colorful, slinky clothes, promises of virility through a panoply of bodywork, health elixirs and eastern exercise arts, and a decadent array of gourmet foods, which fly in the face of the slim-is-beautiful ethos of the place.

We order coffees at the Byronian Café and grab an outdoor table to read the local paper and people watch. There’s an intriguing display of attempts to conform to the Byron look walking up and down the streets – some extreme, like the lusty young lady in a bikini top and low-slung sarong with jewels pierced in any available body nook; others eccentric, like the scruffy unshaven poet with a mane of grey hair falling over his face as he scribbles words in a journal at the table next to us. The town is a magnet for artists, writers, musicians, social misfits and other defectors from mainstream society.

An hour later we’re crossing the Queensland border. The day is brilliantly sunny and pleasantly warm. The Gold Coast lives up to its promises with hi-rise apartments blocking views of the sea and a swash of entertainment options sure to appease cranky young ones and their frazzled parents – Movie World, Underwater World, Sea World, Dream World – even a Honeybee World! We skirt the edge of Brisbane heading inland towards Ipswich, on a mission to visit a friend I’ve never met.

Barbara and I got paired up for a writing assignment in early 2009. We had both enrolled in Swinburne University’s on-line post-graduate writing course. As mature-aged women with a fair amount of writing experience, it didn’t take long before we were applying our middle-aged cynicism to a brusque critique of the course. Unlike our younger comrades, we weren’t hoodwinked by the fact that the course coordinator, a woman roughly our age, was enjoying her tenure in the Faculty of Higher Education by exerting as little effort as possible in curriculum design. The unit material we were studying was fraught with proofreading errors and the content was not dissimilar to that which I taught in high school English classes. And she was an uninspiring and narcissistic writer. We both registered our protest by withdrawing – me with a $6000 debt and no degree.

But what clinched our on-line friendship was not the solidarity of bagging a badly constructed course but rather Scrabble. “Anyone up for a Scrabble game?” Barbara wrote in one of our early on-line Discussion Forums. “If so, meet me on Facebook.” I’m a sucker for word games and can spend hours playing Scrabble and Upwords with my mom when we visit. “What’s Facebook?” I wrote back.

This was early 2009. Little did I know the phenomenon of Facebook was breaking like a tsunami through a generation of Baby Boomers keen to tally up a lifetime of friends. Within two weeks I had over 50 friends and marveled at how my Gen X and Y friends managed to clock up hundreds, some nearly a thousand. How can a 20 year old do that?

Still, to this day I stand by my resolve that the only reason I joined Facebook was to play Scrabble – and Wordscraper, a modern version with more cut-throat scoring potential. While I have four or five Wordscraper games going at any given time (with American friends and family), it’s with Barbara that I’ve maintained a record number of consecutive Scrabble games, going on two years now. And we’ve never met.

I knew she lived in Queensland, in a funny named town somewhere near Brisbane. I never imagined myself anywhere near where she lived, but today we find ourselves on a Brisbane motorway following signs to Ispwich. Barbara has been following this blog and I’d been in touch with her several times while we were deciding whether or not to go north to get her opinion on traveling in Queensland this time of year. She welcomed us to stop by if we decided to head north.

On-line relationships are as common as brown bread these days. But I’d never experienced one before. It strikes me as odd how easily one can fall into a familiarity and ease with someone on the internet, merely through the vehicle of the written word. Maybe because we’re writers it comes easily for Barbara and me. Perhaps also as writers, we have a private persona preferably kept hidden behind the sheen of our well-tended words. I was keen to know whether she was who I had come to imagine her to be.

What goes through our heads when first we lay eyes on each other? “You look just like your pictures,” she says as she ushers us in through the kitchen door. She is more attractive than hers. There was a quirkiness in her I knew from her writing -- an offbeat sense of humor that made her stories a delightful read. Now, in person, I see that it is there also in her clothes, her furnishings and the purple streak on the right side of her silver hair – “my Christmas hair” she calls it.

I realize there is much I don’t know about her, other than that she’s a terrific writer and a great Scrabble player. We soon discover she has a daughter, Prue, who’s only just arrived from Adelaide today, on sabbatical from her job as a professor of American History at Flinders University. They have a lively wit that springs back and forth between them and is nice to see between a mother and daughter.

The four of us spend an hour on her front verandah drinking coffee and chatting. How odd it is to meet someone I’ve known, albeit in a very limited way, for nearly two years. It leaves me feeling mildly disoriented, struggling to marry the imagined with the real in my impressions of her.