Tuesday, December 28, 2010

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


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