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

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