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